As we settle into another winter season, I seek comfort in warm nurturing dishes that satisfy my soul as well as my palate. I long for hearty, rustic comfort foods that fill the house with delicious aromas that keep you close to home. For me, no dish fills that role better than a delicious cassoulet. So what exactly goes into a cassoulet? There are many competing notions.
When you ask the French about cassoulet, you get the feeling that you’ve asked them to defend their love for their own mother. As Ariane Daguin, owner of D’Artagnan Foods puts it, “Cassoulet is not a recipe, it’s a way to argue.” The kinds of beans one should use, whether to use duck or goose or lamb or tomato is indeed an argument that has lasted for centuries.
Let’s start with the basics. Cassoulet comes from the Languedoc region of southwest France where three cities Castelnaudary, Toulouse, and Carcassone claim the dish as their own. The name cassoulet derives from the earthenware cooking pot called a cassole in which the dish is both cooked and served. Beans, duck (or goose), sausages and sometimes lamb are slow cooked, allowing the flavors to develop over several hours. One of the characteristics of cassoulet is the distinctive crust that is achieved by breaking the surface as it cooks and pushing it down several times (at least five) and allowing it to re-form in a slow oven.
The arguments about cassoulet start with what meat or fowl should be used. Castelnaudary uses pork rind and sometimes goose. Carcassone uses mutton and, during hunting season, partridge. Toulouse used fresh lard and local sausages. Noted turn-of-the-century food critic Prosper Monagné, perhaps in an attempted reconciliation between the cities, called the three versions the ‘Trinity’, the ‘Father’ being the cassoulet from Castelnaudary, the ‘Son’ the cassoulet from Carcassone and the ‘Holy Spirit’ the cassoulet from Toulouse. Over a hundred years later, the debate carries on.
So what is a cassoulet loving resident of Washington, DC to do? I say, you should listen to the merits of the arguments across the Atlantic, adapt them to local market availability and feel free to combine elements from any of the regional versions. The beauty of cassoulet is that it is an easily adaptable and evolving process. Over the years, my cassoulet has changed according to ingredients now available in local markets and my own particular taste. There is room to experiment but keep these tried-and-true rules in mind.
Beans: Beans must be able to stand up to hours of cooking without drying out or becoming mushy. Tarbais, Great Northern and Navy beans work well.
Duck: Fresh duck legs are great, but I prefer duck confit because it lends a richer, heartier flavor. You can find vacuum packed duck confit in finer grocery stores.
Cookware: I have never been able to find a supplier of authentic cassoles in the U.S. You can use an earthenware casserole dish or a Dutch oven (enameled or not). Make sure you use a vessel with a wide opening. Remember, the wider the opening the larger the crust.
Never use smoked meats. Smoking will throw the balance of flavors out of whack and overpower them.
If it looks like the cassoulet is getting dry, sprinkle it with a little water to add moisture, but be careful not to drown it.
4 cups small dried white beans (Tarbais, Great Northern or Navy) 4 fresh ham hocks
1 onion, quartered
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp pepper
1 ham bone
1/3 lb. pork rind
2 cups chopped onion
3 tablespoons finely chopped garlic (6 large cloves)
1 (3-inch) piece celery, cut into thirds 3 fresh thyme sprigs 1 bay leaf 3 whole cloves ½ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley 1/4 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 cup seeded, crushed tomatoes or purée 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 tbsp. duck fat (you may substitute chicken fat or olive oil)
4 duck confit leg quarters, legs and thighs separated 1 lb cooked garlic pork sausage or kielbasa, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices
Soak beans 8 hours. Drain.
Place ham hocks in large pot with quartered onion, salt and pepper. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 2 hours. Allow to cool to lukewarm. Drain ham hocks and discard onion. Cut meat from ham hocks in four pieces, discard bones.
Place pork rind, ham bone and 1 cup of chopped onions in a heavy bottomed pot. Cook over medium high heat until pork rind is rendered, about 20 minutes.
Transfer beans to a 6- to 8-quart pot and bring to a boil with 8 cups cold water, onion, and 2 tablespoons garlic.
Put celery, thyme, bay leaf, cloves, parsley sprigs, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie into a bundle with string to make a bundle. This is known as a bouquet garni.
Add bouquet garni to beans, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until beans are almost tender, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Stir in crushed tomato or purée. Simmer 15 minutes more.
Heat duck fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausages and brown them on both sides. Put remaining garlic, onion and ½ cup water in a blender and add the mixture to the skillet. Continue cooking, stirring the mixture from time to time about 10 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Assembly Remove bouquet garni. Using a slotted spoon, place half of the beans in a heavy earthenware, clay or cast iron pot. Place the meat from the ham hocks on top of the beans then cover with the sausage mixture. Place the duck on top of the sausage layer. Cover with the remaining beans. Add enough reserved bean liquid to cover the beans. Reserve bean liquid.
Cook for 1 hour or until the cassoulet comes to a simmer and a crust begins to form. Reduce heat to 250°F and gently push down the crust with the back of a wooden spoon. The cassoulet should be barely bubbling. Cook for 3 hours, breaking the crust every hour or so. If the cassoulet appears dry, sprinkle with a little water or the reserved bean liquid.
Remove from the oven and allow cassoulet to cool completely. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, allow cassoulet to come to room temperature. Pre-heat oven to 350°F. When the cassoulet begins to simmer, break the crust, then add about ½ cup warm water or enough to just cover the beans. Reduce the heat and bake for 3 hours, breaking the crust 3 more times.
Serve cassoulet piping hot, breaking the crust for the final time at the table.