Cassoulet. Anthony Bourdain has been known to refer to it as “the single heaviest dish in the French repertoire.” I can’t say I disagree with him. (Although tartiflette certainly gives it a run for its money.) Like so many other classic dishes, there are many who claim to having invented cassoulet. The three towns most adamant about their version being the “true” cassoulet are Castelnaudry, Carcassonne, and Toulouse. Depending on who you ask, the meats used in the dish are pork (skin, belly, and/or sausage), duck or goose confit, and mutton.
Everyone agrees that the dish contains white beans, and that it is named for a special cooking vessel, the cassole, which is shaped in such a way as to increase the amount of delicious crust that forms on top. After consulting a handful of recipes, notably those from Paula Wolfert and Bourdain and Ruhlman, I drew up an outline of how I would be going about the cassoulet.
I inadvertently sent Nick on a wild goose chase for Toulouse sausages, which were nowhere to be found on Sunday morning. Finally he just asked a butcher for a sausage he could put in cassoulet, and came home with three beautiful, handmade links and a few thick slices of pork belly.
While the beans simmered in a mixture of veal stock and water with an oignon piqué and some thyme, I trimmed the pork belly and threw the skin and bony bits in with the beans. The rest I chopped into lardons which I started cooking over low heat in a good layer of duck fat. When they were nice and crisp, I moved them to a paper towel-lined bowl to drain and began browning the sausages. After that, the duck confit went in to crisp the skin (for snacking purposes) and to warm through (to make the shredding step easier). Then, I drained off most of the fat, reserving it for later, and added some diced onions and carrots to the pot to pick up the fond that had formed. The vegetables softened and the bottom of the pot now clean, several cloves of garlic jumped in to join the party. Meanwhile, I drained the tender-but-not-yet-fully-cooked beans, reserving that liquid as well. The vegetables and the crisped lardons went in with the beans, and I was finally ready to start assembling.
First a layer of fat, then beans, then hunks of sausage, followed by more beans, the shredded duck confit, and the rest of the beans to top it off. Between each layer I sprinkled salt and drizzled a bit more fat. At the end, I ladled the bean cooking liquid into the very full Dutch oven until I could see the level was just below the top of the beans. And into the oven my cassoulet went.
An hour later, a lovely brown crust had formed on top of the beans.
Some may argue that the crusty bits are what cassoulet is all about. I would say that they’re kind of missing the point, as good as that crust may be. Anyway, I stirred this first crust into the beans and sprinkled breadcrumbs over the top to start forming a new crust. Twenty more minutes, and I did it again. Half an hour after that, I pulled the steaming, bubbling, browned cassoulet from the oven, and after stirring in that layer of crust, decided it was ready to eat.
I managed to let it cool a bit while Nick prepared a quick green salad to accompany our dinner and I selected an appropriate bottle of wine (Faugères, a new favorite from the Languedoc).
If I do say so myself, and I do, this is the best cassoulet I’ve ever eaten. I’m sure the amount of effort that went into it plays a large role in that, but still. The beans were tender and creamy but not at all mushy. The sausage provided peppery, meaty contrast to the melt-in-your-mouth shreds of garlicky duck confit. I polished off three big spoonfuls of the stuff (what you see here, plus 50% again) without any problems at all. I actually wanted more, but I knew I should try to restrain myself. I announced that I could go on eating it all night, happily. And this evening, when offered the choice of cassoulet for the second night in a row or something else, Nick responded that he’d been thinking about the cassoulet all day, and wouldn’t mind having it again at all. It pleases me to no end to declare that this labor-intensive dish is completely and totally worth it.
Originally published on Croque-Camille.