Can You Make Cassoulet? Oui!

February  1, 2018

This winter, we’re demystifying classic, intimidating-sounding French dishes by breaking down the essential techniques, which you can apply to any recipe you have, be it Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which our Cookbook Club is all over), or one you’ve inherited.

As we near the end of January, and the days are finally starting to get lighter and longer, we continue to seek comfort from our kitchens to ease the bitterness of winter. Beans are ubiquitous this time of year, and it seems everywhere you turn beans are being braised, boiled, chili’d, and used in various applications. In my mind, there is one bean dish to rule them all, elegant and understated, that outshines many others because of its flavors and textures. This dish is cassoulet, the prettiest gal at the ball (in my opinion). It’s rich and creamy, almost brothy, with chunks of savory bacon and a crispy coating that would make grandma’s mac and cheese envious.

So far in this series, we’ve covered boeuf bourguignon and duck a l’orange at the same time that our cookbook club has been working their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. These classics put Julia Child on the map, and the Cookbook Club found itself roasting duck; making deep, flavorful stocks; and braising beef enthusiastically, unintimidated. It is in that spirit that we plough forward to cassoulet, a dish with a bit of a dramatic history.

Much like paella in Spain or bouillabaisse in Marseille, wars have broken out as to its origins and proper preparation. We can trace the three most authentic variations to the three towns of Languedoc: Castelnaudary, Toulouse, and Carcassonne. Naturally, for the three “genuine” versions, there is a regional set of ingredients that set them apart from one another. Fierce debate continues as to which recipe was the first, but legend has it that Castelnaudary was the original, in which haricot beans were cooked with fresh pork, pork knuckle, ham, pork sausage, and pork rind. Read: the kitchen sink of pork products.

Toulouse personalizes their recipe with the local Toulouse sausage and either confit goose or duck. These are lovely waterfowl that are gently cooked in their own rich fat, aka liquid gold. They are also the only region to put breadcrumbs on top. Carcassonne prefers to add mutton to their mise en place, which is generally believed to be a by-product of hunting season. We must recall that this iconic dish was initially the food of peasants, cobbled together using available ingredients. Bacon and pancetta were cured out of necessity. Many of the variety of beans used depended on the season. Some local lore hints to the fava being the cherished original bean used in this application, particularly since white beans were not available until Christopher Columbus had returned with them from the Americas.

These formulas, distinctive and definitive of their region, obviously share a commonality: white beans cooked with charcuterie and/or a variety of pork products, some confit poultry, a few aromatics, all baked (sometimes twice), and if you are so inclined, topped with a crunchy crust of breadcrumbs.

The Beans

Cassoulet is typically made with white beans, such as haricot, navy, or cannellini. As previously mentioned, fava beans were used in some of the first iterations of this recipe: perhaps something to revisit in the spring! If you are dead-set on favas, you can buy dried varieties. Whatever your bean of choice may be, they’ll need to be soaked overnight to rehydrate. You really want to use dried beans for this; canned beans will completely break down in the cooking process. If you are anything like me, foresight is not your friend. But until we develop time machines, you can boil some water, add the beans, and one hour later, you’re good to go. These beans now get thrown in a dutch oven with your preferred cured pork product (bacon or pancetta) covered with an inch or two of water and boiled. If you are fortunate enough to be in possession of pork rind from a pork loin or from the top of a belly, by all means use it! It may be one of the more authentic steps you can take. You’ll need to soften the rind by boiling it before you, um, boil it again, but it will soften it enough that it will melt beautifully into your beans. Drain the beans and the pork, set them aside, and we can move on.

The Aromatics

I’m going to throw a french term at you: bouquet garni. Imagine someone who loves you brought you a bouquet of some incredibly fragrant flowers, but they were actually dried herbs. Specifically sage, thyme, and bay leaves. Now imagine those herbs were wrapped in a pouch of leek greens or cheesecloth, and tied with some butchers twine. Another term: mirepoix, or the essential vegetables of carrot, onion, and celery. These herbs and the aromatic vegetables flavor the cooking liquid that gets absorbed by the beans. In fact, everything we add is essentially there to make our beans more bombastic and rich and decadent.

If you use the recipe on our site, it means that you have either purchased or made some duck or goose confit. Chicken confit in olive oil works too. You’re going to want to extract the fat from your confit to sear all of your aromatics. That means the mirepoix, the bouquet garni, garlic, and eventually some sausage.

Now, I mentioned the drama that exists in the history of this cherished dish, so there are a few pick your poison situations here. To tomato, or not? To breadcrumb, or not? Fresh tomato, tomato from a can, tomato paste, you can’t go wrong. It is worth mentioning that the addition of any tomato product or crumb topping is a very Toulousian tactic, as is the addition of their eponymous sausage, which is characterized by its course meat. Choice of sausage is also yours and again, there is no wrong answer here, it just boils down to what you prefer. To finalize this step we will deglaze any bits of caramelization at the bottom of our dutch oven with water, stock, or wine. Add the beans that had been boiled with the bacon/pancetta/pork rind. This whole package of love will be placed in a low-temperature oven and baked uncovered for a couple of hours. This process will allow the water, stock or wine to reduce to a thick sauce while softening the beans and giving them that covetable creamy texture.

Assembling the Dish

You may not believe it, but this is the final step of the dish. Making cassoulet is a patience game more than anything else, with truly elegant results. The previously mentioned duck, goose or chicken confit will now be lovingly nestled into the stew and blanketed with garlicky breadcrumbs. It is placed one final time in the oven to allow the confit to warm through completely and the crumbs on top to crisp. A sprinkling of fresh parsley is all that is needed to present this labor of love to the table. Perhaps you won’t need to share the secret to perfect cassoulet: waiting.

Got questions about cassoulet? Go ahead and ask in the comments!

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