All this cold weather has us thinking about comfort foods, and one in particular – one of our all-time French winter favorites: Cassoulet – a fabulously rich dish de terroir that is chock full of things we love, like duck confit, sausage and, of course, lots of carbs.
Cassoulet is legendary, its origins dating back to the 14th century siege of Castelnaudary in southwestern France during the Hundred Years’ War. Surrounded by enemies and impending defeat, the soldiers inside the city walls pulled together their last remaining rations to create a communal dish filling enough to outdo their invaders. The battle, sadly, was lost, but this newfound dish, Cassoulet, went on to become a quintessential ingredient to the Occitan identity and its cuisine. Indeed, perhaps no classic French dish has fared as well, attained such iconic status and attracted such passionate connoisseurs as this simple casserole of beans, meat and herbs.
The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France has since become synonymous with its reputable cuisine de terroir (cassoulet, duck confit, and foie gras, just to name a few); and several cities in the area claim to offer the best cassoulet or to be in possession of the “one true” recipe.
So if you find yourself in the region looking for an authentic dish of cassoulet, I guess it is safe to say that Toulouse, Castelnaudary and Carcassonne are three very good places to start. Le Festin Occitan, by Chef Prosper Montagne, describes these 3 cities as the “Gastronomic Holy Trinity”. According to Montagne, “Cassoulet is the God of Occitan Cuisine, A God in three persons: God the father is that of Castelnaudary, God the Son that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse.”
I tasted my first “true” cassoulet in Carcassonne, and I will never forget it! It was a blisteringly cold day in January, the ground still hard from a recently melted layer of snow, newly frozen by a drop in temperatures. Our friends and us walked through the Ville Basse and then all around the ramparts of the medieval Cite de Carcassonne working up quite an appetite just trying to stay warm, our fingers and noses numb. Suddenly we found ourselves in front of a medieval looking restaurant that surely had been there for centuries. We caught site of a fire blazing in the chimney inside and hesitated no further.
It took a good 45 minutes to get our lovely lunches, but we warmed our souls while we waited with a bottle Chateauneuf du Pape and goose rillettes they brought before us – delicious! The cassoulets came out, individually, beautifully bubbling in their earthenware dishes straight out of the oven. We took our time (you have to its so hot) and savored every morsel. By the time we left, we were so warm and satisfied, we didn’t’ even notice it had started snowing again.
So here’s a recipe from Patricia Wells, if you’re in the mood for something rich and comforting on these cold winter nights. Bon Appetit!
Madame Mouriere’s Cassoulet
• 4-5 legs of duck confit
• 2 pounds dried white beans (Great Northern are excellent)
• 1 pound fresh pork rind or bacon, cubed
• 2 bay leaves
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• 1/2 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch rounds
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1/2 cup goose fat (see note) or butter
• 2 1/2 pounds fresh all-pork garlic sausage (Polish or German sausage is fine)
• 1 pound medium-sized onions (about 4) thin sliced
• 2 cloves garlic
• 2 1-pound-10 3/4-ounce cans imported plum tomatoes, undrained
• 2 cups fresh bread crumbs, blended with
• 2 cloves finely minced garlic
1. The day before the cassoulet will be served prepare the beans. Rinse them well and pick them over to eliminate tiny stones. Put them in a Dutch oven or large saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil, cover and remove from the heat. Allow to sit 40 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in another large saucepan cover the fresh pork rind or bacon with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer for several minutes, rinse, drain and set aside. This is done to remove the salt, which would have a toughening effect on the beans.
3. By this time the beans should have swollen. Discard the liquid (to help make the beans more digestible), rinse the beans and cover them again with cold water. Add the bay leaves, thyme, and drained pork rind or bacon and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil vigorously for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until the beans are quite well-cooked but still a bit firm. Add the carrots and additional boiling water if necessary and cook an additional 15 minutes, or just until the carrots are cooked. The mixture should not be too dry. Remove from the heat, stir in a tablespoon salt and allow to cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
4. In a very large frying pan melt three tablespoons goose fat (or butter). Add the sausages all in a single coil, if you can, and cook them over medium heat for about 12 minutes on one side, about 6 minutes on the other side. (Remember which side was cooked for the shorter time. When the cassoulet is assembled, you will place the sausage with the less cooked side down, so the remaining fat will soak into the bean mixture.) You need not prick the sausage. Remove the sausage from the pan and set aside.
5. In the same saucepan, add an additional three tablespoons goose fat (if necessary) to cook the confit. Let it come to room temperature to soften the fat and remove all of the confit pieces, wiping off the fat as you remove them. Now saute the pieces of confit over medium-high heat until the skin is very crisp and turns a rich, deep brown. Baste off the fat as necessary. The duck should cook about five to 10 minutes on each side. Remove from the frying pan, drain and set aside.
6. Remove the bean mixture from the refrigerator to bring to room temperature.
7. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
8. In the same frying pan, add two tablespoons goose fat (if necessary) and cook the onions over high heat for about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the liquid and a clove of garlic and cook until the mixture is fairly dry, or about 30 minutes. The mixture should be a rich, deep red. Combine the bean and carrot mixture with the tomato and onion mixture.
9. Remove the bones from the duck confit and cut the duck into large chunks without removing the skin.
10. Assemble the cassoulet in a large, earthenware casserole. An oval casserole measuring 12 by 17 by 3 inches deep is a perfect size for this recipe. Rub the inside of the casserole with one clove of garlic and discard the garlic. Layer in this order: a single layer of the bean mixture, using about a third of it. Cover this with the cutup pieces of duck. Add a second layer of the bean mixture. Add the sausages in one layer with less-cooked side down. Add the last layer of beans. Finally, add the bread-crumb mixture. Be sure there is at least half an inch of growing space between the bread crumbs and the rim of the casserole.
11. Place in the oven and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the crust is golden and firm. Serve immediately.
YIELD: 10 to 12 servings