A couple years ago, my husband and our good friends Jeff & Karla accompanied me on a trip to southwestern France to research the setting for Wake Unto Me. The scenery was lovely, sure, and the castles were cool, but it didn’t take long for us to figure out that the real draw was the food. One food of southwestern France that I think more Americans would love to get acquainted with is cassoulet.
Cassoulet is French comfort food: beans, duck, and pork (and sometimes lamb) cooked together into a tasty bit of heaven. Recipes are regional, and seem to be as hotly contested as mac & cheese or BBQ are in the US. Friend Jeff and I tried two different recipes in a cassoulet throwdown, in hopes of finding one we (and our spouses) both liked, and that repaid the effort and money put into it.
My recipe was a combination of a couple different recipes found online (primarily Paula Wolfert’s recipe on Clay Coyote’s blog, as well as one at Saveur), plus alterations that happened when I either couldn’t find the right ingredients or got lazy. Jeff’s recipe came via David Pearlstein, Chief Meat Officer at Link Lab Artisan Meats.
My recipe took three days of very light work, totaling no more than four hours of active work (plus extra for monitoring the stove); Jeff’s recipe was over 20 hours of work, stretched over the span of a week. He made his own sausages and duck confit.
My recipe probably cost about $100 (thanks to the *&^#!! duck confit I bought); Jeff’s cost about $50.
Several days after we’d both completed our cassoulets, we got together to taste test the results. And the winner is……
Neither! We agreed that in an ideal world, we’d combine elements of each.
Any meat cooked with the beans will lose its unique flavor and texture. So, although my recipe called for a pork stew and Jeff’s called for a lamb stew, you could barely tell the difference in the meats. My recipe called for stripping the duck meat off the bones and putting down a layer of duck in the beans; this was a complete waste of duck confit, as it might as well have been dark meat chicken, for all the duckiness that remained by the end. Much, much better was Jeff’s method of putting whole duck confit legs on top of the beans for the last hour of cooking. The resulting duck tasted like duck, and had a better texture. I’d consider making my own duck confit next time, both because the seasonings on Jeff’s duck were lovely and because it’s cheaper.
Flavorful sausages are important. I used garlic-lamb, and they were mealy and flavorless. Jeff’s were homemade and much tastier (although his were homemade, they were different than the sausage recipe listed below), but I think they got a bit dried out. Next time I’ll choose a sausage with more fat in it, or I’ll order sausages from Link Lab Artisan Meats.
My beans were over-salted, over-cooked, and more liquid would have been welcome. Not salting either the beans or pork stew, and cooking the beans much less would solve all these problems. I also might increase the amount of either broth or white wine in the beans and/or pork stew.
Jeff’s recipe had too many beans and too much tomato paste, needed more liquid, and he felt the pork chops were disappointing; he would use pork belly next time. He said he’d use panko next time, too, instead of regular store-bought bread crumbs, which lacked texture.
Overall, my beans were better, and Jeff’s meats were better.
The recipes below do not reflect the lessons learnt, so adjust accordingly.
Serve cassoulet perhaps with raw oysters as an appetizer, and/or a light green salad or heirloom tomatoes with basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. A very light dessert is in order; I made an apple tarte tatin. Cassoulet is dense, rich food, so you’re not going to need anything else hearty with the meal.
Earthy red wines from southwest France are often recommended as accompaniments, like a Côtes du Rhône. That’s what we had, and it was good, but I’d like to try an acidic white, like a medium-dry chenin blanc or dry reisling, with the meal. I think a white might provide a refreshing contrast.
1 lb. pork shoulder cut into 1” cubes (trim off any big chunks of fat, but don’t be obsessive about it)
1 ham hock
10 T duck fat (from confit or elsewhere – I buy a tub of it for $8.50 from a butcher; you can probably use whatever other fat you have on hand, in a pinch)
½ lb pancetta, ventrèche, UNsmoked bacon, or blanched LEAN salt pork, in small cubes
4-6 confit duck legs OR fresh chicken or duck legs/thighs, roasted until done (way cheaper than confit of duck); I’ll bet dark meat turkey would work, too.
1 lb. garlic sausages – pork, lamb, or whatever you can find; I used lamb, but would use pork next time.
1 lb dried white beans: great northern, navy, tarbais, lingots, cocos, flageolet or cannelloni
2 cups breadcrumbs (I use panko)
1 cup whole peeled canned tomatoes, broken up, including liquid (if using fresh tomatoes, peel them first)
1 quart plus 2 cups chicken broth/stock
2 cups white wine
2 medium onions, chopped, divided
2 carrots, chopped, divided
1 head garlic, unpeeled, plus 8 cloves, crushed
1 tsp thyme, divided
1 tsp oregano, divided
2-3 bay leaves
salt & pepper to taste
Special Equipment: Cassole. A cassole is the traditional French pot used for cooking cassoulet. One of the few places in the US you can order one is Clay Coyote, a pottery in Minnesota. Or, you can use any large (5+ quart) ceramic or enameled pot; I’ve even used a regular old Pyrex glass casserole.
Soak beans overnight in water.
Season pork shoulder cubes with a fair amount of salt and pepper, and place in glass bowl, covered, overnight in fridge. Unless you can’t be bothered. I have no idea if this step makes any difference.
Slash ham hock all along its length, at 2” intervals (so that you can imagine peeling the skin off in long strips)
Heat 2 T duck fat at med-high, in large pot. Add half the onions and carrots, cook until lightly brown. Add ham hock, whole head of garlic, 4 cups chicken stock, tomatoes, half of thyme and oregano, all of bay leaves, and drained beans. Simmer about 1 ½ hrs., until beans are just barely tender. Don’t cook them to pieces, as they’ll be cooking more tomorrow. Turn off heat.
Remove ham hock, let cool. Remove strips of skin and reserve. Remove and chop meat, and add meat back to beans. Discard bone and gristly stuff.
Remove garlic head from beans; squeeze out garlic and return to beans (discard skins). Remove bay leaves.
Heat 2 T of duck fat in large sauce pan, med-high heat. Add pork shoulder and lightly brown on all sides. Add pancetta, cook 5 minutes. Add remaining onions and carrots, and cook until lightly browned. Add smashed garlic, and cook until fragrant but not brown.
Add wine, then reduce by half. Add 2 cups chicken broth; bring to boil, then reduce heat and cook uncovered until thickened, about an hour, hour and a half.
Mix pork stew into beans.
Taste, and add salt and pepper to taste.
Let everything cool, cover, and put in fridge overnight. You can store the pork skin strips on top of the bean mix, if you want.
Take beans/pork stew from fridge.
Pull duck meat off bones, in big bite-size chunks.
Line bottom of 5+ qt. ceramic pot (or use two smaller pots or casseroles) with strips of pork skin from ham hocks, fat-side down.
Spread half of bean mix in ceramic pot
Cover with all of duck meat
Top with remaining bean mix, and smooth out
Sprinkle 1 cup breadcrumbs over cassoulet. Drizzle 2-3 T melted duck fat on top.
Bake at 325 for 1 ½ – 2 hours. Every 45 minutes or so, gently stir crust back into cassoulet.
At about the 1 ½ hr mark, brown sausages in duck fat in a skillet; cool slightly, then cut into 3” lengths (or whatever size suits you)
Reduce oven heat to 275. Take out cassoulet and nestle sausages on top. Sprinkle remaining breadcrumbs over everything. Drizzle with 2 T duck fat. Bake for 2 more hours. If the top isn’t lightly browned, briefly put the cassoulet under the broiler.
This dish involves making the following, and then slow cooking them all together:
Pork & Bean Stew
At some unnamed point in the past, make the sausages and duck confit. OR — buy 8 legs of duck confit and buy 2 lbs. of pork sausage. If buying these ingredients, skip down to Day One.
8 duck legs
rendered duck fat or lard
Massage the duck legs with seasoned salt, then let sit for 24 hours in the fridge.
Wipe off excess salt.
Simmer in 225 degree oven, submerged in rendered duck fat, for 2 hours.
Use rendered pork lard if you don’t want to use duck fat, or a mix of both.
1/2 cup kosher Salt
2 crumbled bay leaves
1/4 cup thyme & marjoram dried mix
1 tsp ground juniper berries
1 1/2 lb pork shoulder
1/2 lb pork fat or uncured bacon (or 1/4 lb cured bacon & 1/4 lb straight bacon)
4 cloves of garlic
Saute onion, garlic, and shallots in rendered lard.
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp juniper berries, ground
2 tbl Cognac
Grind everything in Cuisinart
Salt with seasoned salt
Stuff sausages into casings
Put 4 cups of dry white beans in water, to soak overnight
Make brined pork:
1/2 lb. cured pork bellies or boneless pork chops. If using pork bellies, cut into small cubes. If using chops, cut into 1″ cubes.
Put pork bellies or chops in cooled brine and marinate for 24 hrs. in fridge.
5 oz salt (3/4 cup)
4 oz sugar (3/4 cup)
1 qt liquid (water, cider, grape juice, beer, or apple juice)
1 end of nutmeg
3 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp black peppercorn
1 tsp juniper berries
Bring all ingredients to a boil
Turn off and cool.
Make Bean Stew:
8 cups white beans (soaked overnight)
2 carrot branches
1 onion chopped
2 carrots (peeled) chopped
4 cloves garlic chopped
3 bay leaves
4 cloves (whole)
The brined pork
2 qts chicken stock
Put everything into a large pot
Cover all ingredients with stock
Bring to a boil
Cover and simmer for 1 hour
Put in fridge overnight.
Make Lamb Stew:
4 cloves garlic
2 carrots (no need to peel)
3 bay leaves
1 sprig rosemary
1 cup red wine, divided
1 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 lb lamb meat cut into chunks (1 1/2” each)
Chicken stock (amount isn’t precise)
In saute pan, saute the onion, celery, garlic, and bay leaves in duck fat until they start to brown.
Deglaze vegetables with 1/2 cup red wine and dump vegetables in a stew pot.
Add tomato paste.
In saute pan, brown:
1 1/2 lb lamb
Then add to stew pot
Deglaze the pan with more red wine and dump in the stew pot
Cover everything with chicken stock & bring to a boil
Cover and simmer for 1 hour
Remove meat and reserve.
Remove bay leaves and rosemary branch
Puree vegetables with all the juice.
Salt to taste.
Put lamb back in stew, then put in the fridge overnight.
Strain beans and pork, reserving liquid.
Remove lamb from stew, reserving vegetable puree.
Assemble the Cassoulet:
In 6+ quart ceramic pot, layer the ingredients like this:
1/3 of bean stew, spread on bottom of pot.
1/2 of lamb
1/3 of bean stew
1/2 of lamb
1/3 of bean stew
Pour reserved bean/pork broth and vegetable puree over beans & meats until almost covered. Reserve remaining liquids in case you need to add them later, during cooking.
Sprinkle bread crumbs to lightly coat the top of cassoulet.
Bake at 300 for 3 hours; every 45 minutes or so, gently stir the crust of the cassoulet back into it.
Brown sausages in a skillet, in duck fat. Nestle the whole confit duck legs and sausages into the top of the cassoulet, until almost covered. Cover with more bread crumbs. Bake for 1 more hour.