Cassoulet

This rich bean dish is claimed as the regional specialty of the Languedoc region of Southern France. Dating back at least to the 14th century it would have originally been made with a variety of Old World bean similar to the fava bean but by the 16th century had taken on its current form using large white phaseolous beans brought from the New World by Columbus. Although it most likely started out as a simple peasant dish, cassoulet has, in the best French culinary tradition, been endlessly complicated to where it has become a 2-day project. My version, using a pressure cooker to pre-cook the beans, cuts preparation time to a couple of hours.

A note on ingredients: cassoulet always contains large white beans and a crust but except for that there is quite a lot of leeway as to what is in it. I like a fairly classical combination of bacon (or pancetta), duck leg confit, and sausage. Saucisses de Toulouse, mild garlic sausage from the south of France, would be ideal but the closest I could find were store-made roast garlic and herb pork sausages from my local market. Similar chicken sausages available from a number of sources, including Aidell’s, would work too. Avoid smoked sausages like kielbasa that, in my opinion, simply have the wrong flavor for cassoulet.

Ingredients

  • 12 ounces large white beans such as cannellini or great northern
  • 6 quarts cold water
  • 1 tsp. olive oil or duck fat from the confit
  • 4 ounces slab bacon, diced, or thick-sliced bacon, chopped
  • 2 medium or 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 (or more to taste) cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 ounces sausage (see note above), sliced into ½-inch rounds
  • 3 plum tomatoes, canned are dine, coarsely chopped
  • ½ tsp. each dried thyme, savory, parsley, and marjoram
  • 2 cooked duck legs (confit) cut into large dice
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • Duck or chicken stock as needed, about 2 cups
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 cup bread crumbs (I use 2½ cups corn flakes chopped to coarse meal in a food processor to avoid gluten)

Method

Rinse the beans well and pick over to remove any discolored ones or small stones. Place in a pressure cooker and cover with 6 quarts of water. Cook for 20 minutes at 15 psi, timing from when the cooker has reached full pressure. Allow to cool while you prepare the rest of the ingredients then open according to manufacturer’s instructions and drain the beans. Set aside.

Put the olive oil or duck fat into a small Dutch oven (I use a 3-quart one) over medium heat and render the bacon until crispy and browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but 2 Tbsp. of the fat, saving the extra.

Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook the onion and garlic, stirring from time to time, until soft and just starting to brown, about 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Adjust the fat in the pan by adding some of the reserved bacon dripping, turn the heat up to medium-high, and brown the sausage well. Remove and set aside.

Wipe the fat from the bottom of the pan. Return the onions and garlic to the pot along with the tomatoes, herbs, wine, and a good grind of black pepper, to taste. Bring to a boil then turn the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes to concentrate the flavors.

Preheat the oven to 350°. Add the beans, sausage, bacon, and duck to the base in the pot. Stir to combine. Pour on enough stock to just cover the beans and season with ¾ tsp. of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and place in the oven for 15 minutes. After that time has elapsed remove the cover and continue to bake for an additional 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs or corn flakes, pressing down gently with the back of a large spoon so that the juices moisten them. Bake for yet another 20 to 25 minutes or until a crust forms. (Traditionally the crust is broken and allowed to reform 7 times!) Let rest for 10 minutes before serving.

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