Maman Cass-oulet

To me, cassoulet – a rich, crusty stew of white beans and meat – is the grand-est of the grands plats of French winter cooking. It’s also an opportunity (if you want to take it) to stretch the concept of “homemade” to its extremes, since it  can happily accommodate any number of home-cured- and confited bits of animal protein. In any event, it’s the quintessential home-cooked French dish: indeed, one French authority is supposed to have insisted that it shouldn’t be a restaurant dish under any circumstances.

As is the case with all iconic French dishes, one makes pronouncements about authenticity at one’s peril. I don’t pretend that the version I’m presenting here is traditional, per se, but it is based closely on the sort of cassoulet that hails from Toulouse and, I think, respects the integrity of that dish as a whole while making some minor accommodations for those of us not blessed, for example, with the traditional clay cassole cooking vessel. 

Key points:

It’s rich. You know that glowing feeling you get when you’ve been out in a blizzard and suddenly find yourself on a cushy sofa in front of a roaring fire? It’s that kind of experience. You don’t so much consume cassoulet as it envelops you. It’s pretty much a once-a-year thing… so embrace the richness, and don’t try to make it into diet food. If you accompany your cassoulet with a crisp white or briskly tannic/acidic red wine and a salad of bitter greens with a sharp, mustardy vinaigrette, you’ll keep coming back for another bite despite (and because of) the richness.

The real magic in the dish is in the alchemical reaction between starch and gelatin. You need the right kind of bean (more on that in a moment) and a sticky, unctuous stock made from the most gelatinous bits of chicken and pork. This will give you a silky sauce and allow the all-important crust to develop atop the finished dish.

The signature cassoulet crust is well underway here.

It takes at least a day and a half to cook (because you need to soak the beans overnight), even assuming you have the other main components (stock, meats) on hand and prepared. Don’t rush it. It’s better to allow yourself parts of three days to bring all the elements together than it is to scramble and bring a less than stellar product (thin sauce, chalky beans) to the table. 

One more note before we get started. I’m going to take you through how I made this dish today, specifically, using the products of previous cooking sessions. I realize that you won’t have on hand the exact components that I did, but hopefully this gives you a sense of the good things that happen when you prepare and store homemade food over the span of many weeks. That said, I’ll give you a more streamlined recipe at the end.

Main Components:

Beans: At a minimum, they need to be dried, white, kidney-shaped and from a good source with high turnover. Ideally, you would have a source of genuine, French tarbais beans. But these are hard to find. Next best (or best, depending on who you ask!) are lingot beans, which are slightly different in shape and have a thicker skin than tarbais. These two varieties excel in holding their shape and retaining moisture and tenderness during a long stint in the oven. Less desirable but still good: cannellini, great northern or navy beans.

Sausage: I had on hand some frozen Toulouse sausages that I had made. They’re a mild, uncured and unsmoked pork sausage, with a hefty dose of white pepper, a bit of nutmeg, and a noticeable but not overwhelming presence of garlic. I use Len Poli’s recipe, but reduce the white pepper by 1/3. If you don’t have Toulouse sausages, another mild, uncured garlic sausage will do. Avoid those with smoke or assertive Italian seasonings like fennel. I used three sausages in the cassoulet.

Duck Confit: Also from the freezer, I had some duck confit that I had cured for six hours and cooked sous vide at 82’C / 180’F for eight hours. I used two legs for this recipe.

Pork Belly: The freezer also yielded up a slab of pork belly that I had cured lightly and cooked sous vide according to a recipe by Heston Blumenthal. I had cooked and frozen this in portions of about 225g, and I used one of those.

Sous vide-d duck confit and pork belly

Rounding out the meats, I had a raw, uncured and uncooked pork hock weighing about 900g. It’s nice to have some unseasoned pork in the cassoulet to provide a contrast against all of the salted and cured meats.

Stock: I had a couple of frozen containers of homemade chicken stock, one brown (from roasted chicken bones) and one white (regular stock made from raw bones). Both had been enriched with raw chicken feet and necks, and they were very gelatinous as a result. I also had a few cups of ham stock, the byproduct of having pressure-cooked a smoked ham hock last week for black bean soup. (In fact, the basis of that ham stock was some of the white chicken stock… i.e., that was the cooking medium in which I pressure-braised the smoked ham hock). Finally, I had the heavily gelatinous juices left in the sous vide bags of duck confit and pork belly.

You really can’t get away with using store-bought stock in this recipe, unless it’s very well gelled or you augment it with gelatine. But the stock is such a key component in terms of flavour and texture that I urge you to make your own.

Ham stock and bagged duck confit and pork belly, showing delicious gelled cooking juices

Prep and Cook:

I started by brining the dried beans overnight in a 1.5% salt water solution. I used two litres of water to give my 500g of beans ample cover, so that required 30g of salt.

The next morning, I drained the plumped-up beans and simmered them for two hours in two litres of chicken stock and about 700ml of salty, smoky ham hock broth along with a carrot, half of a clove-studded onion, and a seasoning pouch containing six cloves of peeled garlic, a dozen black peppercorns, a fresh bay leaf, and a sprig each of thyme and parsley. I added about a teaspoon of salt for good measure, taking into account the fact that the beans had been brined and that the ham broth provided additional seasoning.

Next, I prepped a mise en place for the pressure-braised uncured pork hock. That consisted of a roughly chopped carrot, a few scallions, a few slices of fennel, a clove of garlic, a halved, unpeeled onion, a fresh bay leaf, eight peppercorns, and a sprig of thyme. The cooking medium was about 750ml of chicken stock.

These went into the pressure cooker (atop a trivet), and I cooked this on high pressure for an hour, followed by a natural release.

I let the ham hock sit until it was cool enough to touch, then removed it to a cutting board. I carved away the skin in large pieces and set it aside, then picked the meat from the bones, cutting large chunks into mouth-friendly, one-inch pieces. By that time, the beans were fully cooked: tender, without a trace of chalkiness. They had cooked at a low simmer, and had kept their shape nicely.

A few peppercorns escaped the seasoning bag. Grr.

I then drained the beans, reserving the carrot and garlic that had simmered along with them. Because the braising liquid was so flavourful to begin with, the carrot and garlic were still very tasty, so I whizzed them up with a bit of stock and a tablespoon of tomato paste to enrich the cooking liquid for the final dish.

I then lined the bottom of the now-empty casserole with a hodgepodge of porky bits, aimed at enriching the dish and keeping the beans from scorching on the bottom of the vessel. I used the skin from the pressure-braised pork hock, pieces of rind from slab bacon, and a scattering of uncooked pancetta. Not pretty, but it did the trick!

Franken-pork

At last, it was time to assemble the dish. While my oven heated to 300’F, I layered half of the beans atop the pork rinds and pancetta. I topped this with all of the chunks of duck confit and pork hock, followed by the rest of the beans. I then poured in the pureed carrot and garlic, the bean cooking liquid, and enough of the pork braising liquid (defatted using a gravy separator) to just cover the beans. I dolloped a few tablespoons of duck fat (from the duck confit) atop this, brought it to a simmer on the stovetop, and put it in the oven, uncovered, for two hours.

Near the end of the two hours, I browned the pork belly cubes and Toulouse sausages in a frying pan with a little oil. I let those rest as I pulled the almost-cassoulet from the oven.

I was happy to see that a thin, caramelized and slightly stretchy crust (think of a very thin, tender fruit leather) had formed atop the cassoulet. It had pulled back from the sides of the pot, but covered most of the surface.

I lined the outside of the crust with a ring of cubed pork belly, primarily to protect the beans that weren’t covered by the crust. I then cut each sausage into a few pieces and pressed those down into the beans, below the level of the crust, through incisions I made in the crust. I topped the crust with about half a cup of coarse, semi-dry breadcrumbs that I had whizzed up in a food processor using scraps from a stale sourdough loaf.

The dish went back into the oven for a final hour. Halfway through that, I wasn’t happy with the pallor of the breadcrumbs, so I bumped the temperature up to 375’F.

That did the trick. The crust was beautiful: a range of deep, rich reds and browns, capped with the golden-brown crumbs. I let the cassoulet set while I put together a quick salad of celery root, Meyer lemon and Belgian endive.

The verdict: absolutely delicious. I would’ve welcomed a bit more broth (and I’ve adjusted the recipe below to reflect that), but the beans were intensely flavourful and creamy, and the meat was tender and tasty. The crust was the star: a bit chewy, crunchy, tangy and salty.

Maman Cass-oulet: The Recipe

Serves 6-8. Total prep and cooking time: 12 hours (including 8 hours unattended overnight bean soaking time)

Ingredients:

Beans

  • 450-500g dried tarbais, lingot, cannellini, great northern or navy beans
  • 30g salt
  • 3 litres rich, gelatinous homemade chicken stock (or a combination of 2.3 litres chicken and 700ml ham stocks)
  • 1.5 tsp kosher salt (1 tsp if using ham stock as above)
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into 3 chunks
  • 1/2 of a medium yellow onion, peeled and cut in half through the root
  • 1 clove
  • 6 large cloves garlic
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 large sprig thyme
  • 1 sprig parsley
  • 12 black peppercorns

Pork Hock

  • 1 pork hock, raw (uncured and unsmoked), skin on, approximately 900g/2lbs
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 3 scallions, white and green parts, roughly chopped
  • 50g fennel, separated into leaves
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, root trimmed, unpeeled, cut in half through the root
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • 8 peppercorns
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • 750ml rich, homemade chicken stock

To Assemble

  • Sufficient additional pork skin, rind and/or pancetta to line the bottom of your casserole (Note: you will use the skin from the pork hock, above, to line part of the casserole)
  • 2 legs prepared confit duck leg, with their juices and fat, skin and bones removed and discarded
  • 225-250g braised pork belly, with its juices
  • 3 Toulouse sausages, uncooked
  • 15ml/1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 60ml duck fat, if your duck confit does not come with its own fat
  • 1/2 cup fresh, coarse breadcrumbs

Equipment:

  • 8-quart ovenproof casserole or dutch oven with sides at least 10cm/4in high. Note: you can use a clay cassole if you have one
  • Pressure cooker or instant pot

Method:

  • For the beans: The night before you wish to serve the cassoulet, dissolve the 30g of salt in 2 litres of water. Add the beans, cover, and soak overnight at room temperature. Before cooking, drain and rinse the beans, discarding the soaking brine.
  • Pierce the onion with the clove. Place the thyme, parsley, bay leaf, garlic and peppercorns in a muslin bag and tie it securely. Place the beans, vegetables and aromatics, and the stock(s) and additional salt in the casserole. Add any gelled juices collected from the duck confit and pork belly. Bring the pot to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer the beans for two hours, or until completely tender. The beans should bubble away lazily, but should not boil so vigorously that they jostle one another.
  • For the pork hock: Place a trivet in the bottom of a six- or eight-quart pressure cooker. Add all of the ingredients, seal the cooker, and pressure cook on high for one hour. Allow the pressure to dissipate naturally, then remove the lid. Allow the pork hock to cool at room temperature until you can safely handle it.
  • Remove the skin from the pork hock and reserve it to line the casserole. Detach the meat from the bones, discarding large pockets of fat, sinew and other cruft. Cut large pieces down to about 2.5cm/1in in size. Reserve the meat. Discard the bones and other refuse.
  • Preparing the casserole: Preheat your oven to 300’F, and place a rack in the middle position. Drain the beans, reserving the cooking liquid, carrot and garlic cloves. Discard the remaining aromatics. Wipe out the casserole and line the bottom with pork skin and rind (fat side down), adding pancetta as needed to fill in gaps. The objective is to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
  • Cut the duck confit meat into chunks of roughly 2.5cm/1in
  • Add half of the beans to the casserole. Scatter the chunks of duck confit and pork hock atop the beans. Spread the remaining beans atop the meats.
  • In a blender (or with an immersion blender) whizz the reserved carrot and garlic cloves from the bean braise along with about 250ml/1 cup of bean braising liquid to make a slurry. Pour this evenly over the beans in the casserole.
  • Add enough bean braising liquid and pork hock cooking liquid to just cover the beans. Scatter dollops of duck fat (60ml or 1/4cup in total) over the top of the beans. Bring the casserole to a simmer on the stovetop, and place it in the preheated oven for two hours.
  • Remaining Garnishes and Final Assembly: When the cassoulet has been in the oven for 90 minutes, prepare the sausage and pork belly. Dice the pork belly into approximately 2.5cm/1in chunks. Brown these on two or three sides in a pan with a bit of oil over medium-high heat until richly browned (about 2 minutes a side). Remove them from the pan and set aside. Prick the sausages in several places and brown them, turning often, until they, too, are richly browned. The sausages will not be cooked through at this point. Rest the browned sausages for five to ten minutes to let the juices settle back into the meat, then cut them into 5cm/2in thick chunks.
  • When the cassoulet has cooked for two hours, remove it from the oven. If the beans seem at risk of drying out, add a bit more stock, but do not pour stock on top of the crust you’ve worked so hard to build.
  • Place the pork belly chunks around the perimeter of the crust or where there are thin spots in the crust. Press them into the beans so they are flush with the crust. Incise the crust as needed to permit you to press the sausage chunks into the beans (without unduly disturbing the crust).
  • Scatter the breadcrumbs atop the cassoulet. Return it to the oven for one hour. If the bread crumbs are not browning at the 30 minute point, raise the oven temperature judiciously to encourage browning.
  • Remove the cassoulet from the oven and allow it to rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serve with a selection of mustards, a salad with a tangy dressing, and a crisp white or lively and slightly tannic/acidic red wine.

Leave a Reply