According to Wall Street Journal writer Aleksandra Crapanzano:
"When Martha Stewart asked the founder of gourmet meat purveyor D'Artagnan about the hearty French dish of duck confit, garlic sausages and tarbais beans, Ariane Daguin responded in a thick Gascon accent that imparted culinary authority. 'Cassoulet,' she said, "it is not a recipe in France. It is a way to argue between villages.'"Crapanzano goes on to explain cassoulet's history, a dish that originated with "white beans, garlic, pork shoulder, sausages, [and] stale breadcrumbs." The name cassoulet refers not to the recipe itself but to the dish it's assembled and baked in.
When my friend Steph and I decided to make a traditional cassoulet for Easter, I began my research with the source of all French food: Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia's "French Baked Beans" recipe is 6 pages long. In the introduction, she explains:
"As cassoulet is native to a relatively large region of France, each part of which has its own specialties, arguments about what should go into this famous dish seem based on local traditions. Toulousains insist that it must include among its meats preserved goose, confit d'oie, or it is not a real cassoulet. [...] Then there are those who declare the cassoulet was born in Castelnaudary, and originally contained only beans, pork, and sausages. A heretical few suggest the cassoulet was not a French invention at all, but an adaption from the Arab fava bean and mutton stew. And so on, with variations and dogmatisms rampant."While a traditional cassoulet can be made with a variety of meats--duck, goose, pork, lamb--Julia says that "the important item is flavor, which comes largely from the liquid the beans and meats are cooked in." Her version is made with pork loin, lamb shoulder, unsmoked bacon & homemade sausage cakes.
In my cassoulet research, I also studied recipes from Michael Lewis (whose adaptation of Julia's recipe features duck confit, bacon, lamb bones, garlic-pork sausage & goose fat), Saveur (a tomatoey pork-extravaganza loaded with ham hocks, pork shoulder, pancetta, pork sausage & duck confit), Mark Bittman (which begins with a whole duck and finishes with bacon, lamb shoulder, seared duck breasts & garlicky sausage), Anthony Bourdain & Michael Ruhlman (a 3-day production layered with beans, pork sausage, more beans, pork belly, more beans, duck confit, and beans again with a caramelized onion & garlic puree between each layer), and Nigel Slater (his "unctuous meat and snowy white beans" version contains duck confit, pork shoulder, bacon & pork sausage with a breadcrumb crust that's stirred into the stew after an hour, then topped with more breadcrumbs & a drizzle of duck fat).
"The perfect cassoulet is one that sends wave after garlicky wave of warmth from the end of your tongue to the tips of your toes. The beans are held in just the right amount of herby, tomatoey goo, the breadcrumb crust is crisp, and the first mouthful piping hot. It should contain haricot or broad beans, some fatty pork, garlicky sausages and a thick breadcrumb crust."I pieced together aspects of a few different recipes to create my own Frankenoulet, but I used Crapsanzano's recipe from the Wall Street Journal (which she adapted from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro) as my starting point...forgoing her step to reduce the bean cooking liquid, adding caramelised onions to her garlic confit puree, layering the cassoulet in Bourdain/Ruhlman fashion, and baking the assembled dish uncovered for a couple hours before adding the breadcrumb topping.
Cassoulet isn't necessarily difficult to make; it just takes 3 days to prepare all the separate parts before baking the finished dish. Julia refers to this as "the order of battle." Day One: Make the duck confit (if you're making it instead of buying it) & soak the beans. Day Two: Cook the beans & make the garlic confit, then refrigerate overnight. Day Three: Finish the rest of the ingredients (make breadcrumbs, caramelize onions, cook pancetta & sausage), assemble the cassoulet & bake.
As Bittman says, "[...] cassoulet isn’t that demanding; it just takes time, and I’m here to say: You can do it."
And you CAN do it. WE did. So go do it already!
For the beans:1 1/2 pounds dried white beans
1 bay leaf
1 large garlic clove, peeled
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 onion, peeled and halved crosswise
1 carrot, peeled and halved crosswise
1 piece bacon skin or trimmings (about 2 ounces) *
4 quarts freshly-made chicken or duck stock
* I used the skin from the pancetta.
For the cassoulet:
2 tablespoons olive oil or duck fat
1 pound pancetta, diced into lardons
1 pound garlicky sausages
confit from 1 whole duck
1½ cups garlic confit puree (recipe below)
For the garlic confit puree:
2 heads of garlic, cloves separated & peeled
olive oil, as needed
2 onions, halved & sliced
salt & pepper
For the crumb topping:
3 tablespoons olive oil or duck fat
1 1/2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
3 tablespoons thyme, finely chopped
salt & pepper
- Cover the beans with room temperature water and let sit overnight in a nonreactive bowl.
- Drain the beans and discard the water. Transfer beans to a large pot. Add bay leaf, garlic clove, peppercorns, thyme, onion, carrot & bacon. Cover with stock. (The beans should be covered throughout the cooking process by about 1 inch of liquid.)
- Bring to a light simmer and cook over low heat, uncovered, until fully tender. This could more than 2 hours, depending on what kind of beans you are using. Start testing after 90 minutes. When they are just tender throughout, turn off the heat and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate beans in their liquid overnight (cover the pot).
- To make the garlic confit: Cut the root end off of the peeled garlic and place in a small saucepan. Add enough olive oil to cover the cloves by 1 inch. Set the pan over the lowest possible heat and cook gently. You should see very small bubbles in the oil but nothing that breaks the surface. If necessary, set the pan partially off the burner to achieve sufficiently gentle heat. Cook garlic, stirring occasionally, until cloves are completely tender when pierced with a knife, about 1 hour. Remove the pan from the heat and allow cloves to cool in the oil, about 1 hour. Then, pour the garlic and oil in a jar or covered bowl and refrigerate overnight.
- Drain the beans, discarding the vegetables and bacon but reserving the cooking stock. (If you used bacon fat or trimmings--not skin--save it to add to the garlic puree.)
- To make the garlic confit puree: Caramelize the sliced onions (seasoned with salt & pepper) in a few tablespoons of the oil from the garlic confit. Puree the onion & the drained garlic cloves in a food processor or blender until smooth. Add some of the garlic oil if needed to make a smooth paste. (If you used bacon fat or trimmings in the beans, you can add it to the garlic puree as well.)
- Heat olive oil or duck fat in a skillet over medium-high heat and cook the pancetta until lightly browned but not crispy. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon.
- In the same pan, brown the sausages. Remove from pan & set the aside. (If you don't want whole sausages in your cassoulet, let them cool a little bit and slice them into 1-inch pieces.)
- Start layering the ingredients in a large heavy-bottom dutch oven. Star with a layer of beans, then add the sausages, some of the garlic confit puree, another layer of beans, the pancetta & duck confit, more of the garlic puree, then the rest of the beans.
- Add the reserved bean cooking stock, enough to just barely cover the beans.
- Bake uncovered for two hours. The cassoulet should be moist but not soupy. Check the beans for doneness; they should be soft and creamy.
- Meanwhile, combine all of the ingredients for the crumb topping. Sprinkle the cassoulet with the crumbs. Bake an additional 15 minutes, or until the topping is evenly browned. (We increased the oven temperature to 400 for this step, then finished with a couple minutes under the broiler for a crunchy topping.)
- Behold your gorgeous creation and rejoice because you are now a culinary badass.
- Serve immediately.