Cassoulet and red wine makes a wintry feast. Kara Wille digs in
For many, February is a bad month, emotionally speaking. If you overindulged in gift-giving in December, the full extent of your credit card bills has finally come to light. If you don’t like winter, February is still the thick of your least favourite season and with March guaranteed to come in like a lion, spring seems so far away.
All the more reason to self-medicate with food, don’t you think? The best remedy for a dull and dreary late winter weekend is to compose a cassoulet to serve to family and friends for a gloriously cozy Sunday lunch. A green salad and several bottles of bold red wine are all you need to complete this cheerful feast.
Cassoulet is a rich, peasanty mix of beans and meat, fat and flavour, a delightfully time-consuming yet simple meal to make and share with your favourite people. Cooked in a covered casserole dish, cassoulet originates in the Languedoc and is the subject of much lore and debate. Like so many recipes featured in these pages, there are any number of versions of cassoulet depending on the tradition you subscribe to and the ingredients in your kitchen. The difference, the artistry, is in each individual cook’s take on the basic ingredient list of beans, fresh meats, smoked or preserved meats and herbs, cooked low and slow into a delicious mess.
Be warned, however, cassoulet requires patience; as Amanda Hesser noted in the New York Times in 1999, “Not until it reaches the table and you break through the bread-crumb crust do you know… if all your hard work is rewarded.” In my experience, you will always be rewarded. Cassoulet is just that type of dish.
So, when you think you can’t bear another February weekend, invite nine of your closest friends and family for Sunday lunch and indulge in the pleasant task of making cassoulet. Your house will smell heavenly, you’ll have lots of time to read quietly while the beans stew in their casserole, and your spirits will be renewed by your guests’ cries of admiration.
Cassoulet for 10
This recipe is adapted from The Old World Kitchen by Elizabeth Luard (Bantam Books 1987) to reflect my own taste (I have, for example, omitted Luard’s shoulder of lamb). Make it once this way to get an idea of the dish and then experiment freely to suit your own tastes. As Luard notes, “cassoulet, quite simply, is the creature of its maker.”
Time: Start a day ahead; 30 to 40 minutes plus 4 hours cooking
Equipment: large pot for soaking and cooking the beans, frying pan, large lidded casserole or other oven-proof vessel such as a Le Creuset pot
Ingredients, First Cooking
11/2 lbs dried white navy beans, soaked overnight in cold water (680 g)
1/2 lb salted pork belly or smoked pork back (230 g)
2 large carrots, scraped and cut into thick chunks
1 large onion, peeled and stuck with 6 cloves
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 bunch fresh herbs: flat leaf parsley, thyme, rosemary, tied in a bunch with a dried bay leaf (use plain cotton thread)
6 black peppercorns, crushed
Ingredients, Second Cooking:
1 duck leg, preserved (confit) or fresh
1 lb lean pork, cut into chunks (I used a pork loin that I had on hand) (450 g)
1/2 lb smoked duck breast, sliced thickly (230 g)
1/2 lb bacon piece (available at delicatessens, avoid anything labelled double-smoked, that’s too smoky for this dish) (230 g)
2 fresh, garlicky, pork sausages
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
2 onions, roughly chopped
1 large can of whole tomatoes
2-3 Tbsp duck fat (30-45 mL)
1/4 to 1/2 cup chopped parsley and thyme (60-120 mL)
1 cup bread crumbs (250 mL)
salt & pepper to taste
Begin by soaking the beans overnight in cold water. Remove any discoloured or floating beans.
The next day, drain the beans and add all the ingredients from the First Cooking ingredient list. Cover everything with fresh water and bring to a boil, skimming off the grey foam that rises. Reduce heat and simmer the beans for an hour, until they are soft but still whole, adding more boiling water if necessary.
While the beans are simmering, prepare the meats from the Second Cooking ingredient list. If using a fresh duck leg, salt & pepper the leg and roast in the oven at 350º F until done, reserving the drippings to fry the other meats (depending on the fattiness of your fresh duck leg, you may need to augment the drippings with additional duck fat, which is why it is included in the ingredients list). If using the duck leg confit, place the leg in the frying pan and melt off the drippings over medium heat, taking out and preserving the leg itself. Fry the pork pieces with the crushed garlic in the drippings and remove from pan. Fry fresh sausage in the drippings, remove from pan and cut each sausage in half. Fry the onions in the drippings until soft and golden, then remove from pan. Reserve any drippings in the pan.
When the beans are done, remove the herb bunch, onion and any carrot chunks that haven’t disintegrated into the beans. Drain the beans but reserve the liquid.
Pre-heat your oven to 250º F. Take out your lidded oven dish. Cut the bacon piece in half, lengthwise. Place both halves in the bottom of the dish. Layer the beans on top with the duck leg, pork chunks, sausage, smoked duck breast, onions, tomatoes, finishing with a layer of beans. Add a cup of the liquid from the beans’ soaking, put the lid on the dish and bake in the oven at 250º F for two hours.
After two hours, remove your cassoulet from the oven and take off the lid. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary, however, I find that the smoked meats provide enough salt for the beans. Scatter breadcrumbs and chopped parsley and thyme over the surface of your cassoulet and then drizzle a tablespoon of duck fat drippings over the whole thing. Increase oven temperature to 350º F and return the cassoulet, uncovered, to the oven for another 2 hours. Check on the dish periodically – what you want to see is the breadcrumbs forming a lovely golden crust that you can gently push down into the beans from time to time, further thickening the crust. I have been known to cheat on this step and use the broiler near the end, but it’s not recommended. You can’t rush a cassoulet crust.
Take the cassoulet out of the oven about 10 minutes before serving. Beneath the crackly crust, you should have a garlicky and slightly smoky mélange of creamy beans and tender meats, both deeply infused with flavour. Serve with a crisp green salad and a red wine that’s got some backbone to it.