After a tasty, but nowhere near traditional cassoulet attempt, we decided to get a bit more serious.
Cassoulet is a very old dish dating at least to the middle ages. It is in some ways is a forbearer of both “franks and beans” and those casseroles that were popular in the 1950’s-70’s in the US. You know, the ones made with leftover rice or noodles, tuna, and canned cream of mushroom soup. The resemblance in taste is even worse than pate to meatloaf.
It is a rustic, country dish consisting of beans, various meats, and some vegetables layered together in a heavy, open pot and baked. This is the kind of dish that you eat in winter when there isn’t much fresh meat around and where it can simmer all day on the stove. It is a particularly good dish for us to make right now because it’s a classic bean dish, we just made duck confit (post to come!), we still have some of our bacon, and there are a couple andouille-style sausages (not traditional, but tasty) left.
It usually has large white beans: tarbais are a really pricey version, but navy and cannellini work too. Before the white beans came from America, fava beans were used. We used cannellini from a local Italian market Mona Lisa. They had some in bins at $2.29/lb, but they weren’t covered and it didn’t look like they got much turnover. So, we got a pre-packaged bag of them at $3/lb. Here they are when we first put them in water to soak overnight.
We did some web searching, but mainly looked at two cookbooks: I Know How to Cook by Ginette Mathiot (the Joy of Cooking for French peeps, translated into English) and The Complete Robuchon by Joel Robuchon. Both are similar, but Robuchon has more detailed instructions and seems to cut fewer corners: he cooks the assembled cassoulet for 4 hours at 250 instead of Mathiot’s 2 hours at 350. We mostly went with Robuchon, but we didn’t do a breadcrumb crust at the end and used the meats that we have.
The beans are cooked with herbs (parsley, thyme, and bay) and aromatics (onion, carrot, garlic) for about an hour. We put the bacon in the water in the last 15 minutes to cook it a bit and extract some of the salt. Here are the beans after they have come out.
Different regions of France (mostly the South of France) each include different types of meats. A number are added: tough cuts like lamb, mutton, or pork shoulder; and preserved meats like sausages, duck or goose confit, and pork belly or bacon. We added pork shoulder, bacon, duck confit, and our andouille sausage. We browned the shoulder and sausage. Here’s the shoulder.
Onions are cooked in the pan that was used to brown the meats, transferring all that yummy browned protein flavor to the onions.
Often, tomatoes or tomato paste is added, helping to bring out the protein flavor with their glutamates. We used paste since tomatoes are not in season here. The onion-tomato mixture is mixed up with the beans and part is spread into a dish. We’re using a dutch oven — the traditional cassole dish is circular with sloping sides.
The meats are layered on top of the beans.
And more meats are layered…
Then, the rest of the beans are put on top and bean liquid is added to cover. The whole pot is placed in the oven at 250 for 4 hours in this case where the meats continue cooking until very tender and the flavors meld. When it comes out, the top is browned, carmalized, and lightly crusty. It may be that a perfect crust is one of those things that takes a bit of work, but this certainly looked tasty.
We garnished with parsley and ate it as a stew with Bread & Cie multigrain.
The flavor whomped the previous version out of the water. There is something about the duck confit that gives it a rich complexity that is hard to describe. It may require a few more meals to describe it, but that’s ok — we’ll have enough for the rest of the week! The texture of all the meats was soft and tender, with the confit in particular shredding to pieces. I think the 250 cooking is probably essential to this because if it boils, much of the meat will be become tough.
This dish overall is only a couple hours of actual work for a pot of food that is about 4-5 meals for 2. But it is a lot of cooking time, especially if you add in the duck confit. It is perfect when you are going to be home for the day cleaning, working, or reading. Prep for dinner is very quick. Even if you make a salad to go with it, you’re looking at 15 min max. It also seems really flexible — you can add a lot of different sorts of meats, most which we usually have in the freezer.
Price wise, this is an expensive dish if you buy confit, sausages, and good bacon, but quite reasonable if you make them yourself. We used 3/4 of a duck at $12/duck ($9), $3 in beans, $1 for sausage, $1.50 for bacon, $2 on onions & carrot, $0.50 on tomato paste, and $1 on herbs. So, $18 for a generous 8 servings. There was a one-time charge of $12 for duck fat to make the confit, but that will get used up and used again. Even if we add $6 to the total cost, we are looking at a reasonably priced dish of $3/serving.
All in all, a great recipe that we’ll make again. We’ll need a few more dishes before we hit the badge, though.