We keep trying to say goodbye to winter this year, but it just keeps coming over and over again. At the least, it gives me one more chance to make a last rich, hearty dish perfectly suited for a cold night indoors, and say one more farewell to this dreaded season of snow and winds.
With a name based on the round clay dish it’s baked in, the “cassole,” Cassoulet adds itself very firmly into the long history that preceded and ended up forming the typical Casserole. Much like how we consider our casseroles today, the origins of this French peasant dish, attributed to the Languedoc region to the south (though it has spread from there quite nicely), stick around the idea of people at one time throwing whatever they had into a pot to the cook, usually some beans, sausages, preserved meat, etc. In fact there are many who even equate the ORIGINAL compilation as being during the siege of Castelnaudary in the Hundred Year War, with everything being mixed and eaten out of a giant cauldron, bolstering the soldier’s spirits and bellies to lead to victory! But really that’s just a story.
In fact, true origin, or inspiration may be the better phrase, lay to Arab traders (or immigrants? Either way they traveled there, the south is right next to many an intercontinental connection) who introduced a stew of Mutton and Fava Beans. Which is interesting to note, that despite its long-held popularity with white haricot-style navy beans (and similar), the French never actually had any of these during the time of this dish’s supposed creation. Instead fava beans, and possibly lentils, were one of the only styles they could actually get their hands on. It wasn’t until Columbus’ journey back from America in the 1800’s that the popular dried white beans were introduced to Europe, spreading to France through Spain (French Queen Catherine de Medici facilitating the particular product) and thus exploding in popularity in both the dish and culture. France now has quite a few delicious white bean species to call their own.
Now, cassoulet is treated with an almost Holy reverence; in fact, the main Three Regions (and thus three main styles) in the Languedoc that make the dish each name their cassoulet after the Holy Trinity. Castelnaudary’s cassoulet is the “Father,” Carcassone’s the “Son,” and Toulouse’s the “Holy Ghost.” Quite a few other variations, some known from the regions that bore them, have popped up since these three, and the southern France is now filled with an army-full of slightly different recipes and methods for this. In fact the idea can, and has, spark quite the heated debate among Frenchmen of different beliefs to their practically-religious stew, lighting the flame of inspiration for many a quote to describe it. In fact, in 1966 the Etats Generaux de la Gastronomie Francais, in light of all these inner arguments, officially decreed proper Proportions to what constitutes an actual cassoulet! They are: 30% Pork, Mutton, and/or Preserved Goose, and 70% Haricot Beans, Stock, Pork Skin, Herbs and Flavourings (and after reading this I think I’m technically off in some proportions, but mine tasted damn good so there!). It still leaves quite some room for personal interpretation, so the fun in creating that dish to warm your own heart, soul and stomach lives on… hopefully with less people hitting each other with a chair.
A Word On…
“What it is”:As somewhat stated in the opening, there are quite a few different kinds, and following that just as many different way of composing the dish. I’ll discuss the meat selection in a dish later, but figuring out how one wants to put everything together can be a daunting task. Final, little decisions are up to the cook, since the end dish will still end up reminiscent of some random region’s “style” of cassoulet anyways I’m sure, so here are the main things to remember.
Despite all the many tiny details in putting together this dish, at the end of the day cassoulet is a very simple thing. It’s Dry White Beans, cooked and mixed with Pork (or Mutton) Stew, baked in a Casserole dish with other meats and a crispy Breadcrumb topping. The beans can be cooked separately or with the Stew; traditionally with, which is what I do just to get all those flavors mixed around and all that good stuff. Finally, much like the Coq au Vin it’s always best to extend the making of it out by a day or so, letting the stewed flavors marry together.
If there’s anything in this whole post that you should pay attention to, I think that’s basically it. It can be big and confusing and overly complicated at times, and I know my writing style doesn’t help with this, but sometimes we just have to step back, take a deep breath, and look at a dish in its most basic, simple components. Good Luck.
Oh, one last thing. When it comes to things like duck confit and sausage, I’ve seen some recipes that layer them with the beans in the cassoulet, whole or sliced, while others just mix it in roughly. I say do what feels best for yourself in that regard, it’s all good.
Cooking Fat:Oh, fat is a VERY important part of this meal, and what you use to cook and sear things ever much so. One needs to sear all the meats in the stew, the sausage, sprinkle it over the breadcrumbs, etc. Butter and oil will only get you so far; if you really wanna keep this rich and traditional, I say make sure you have a lot of reserved, rendered animal fat, like of the Pork variety. I just used all the Duck Confit Fat I had leftover.
Garlic:A southern France dish, garlic is another very important ingredient in the cooking process. This can be added in multiple ways, easiest being to just sauté it with the other veggies, roast and top, blend in raw, etc. I liked this one recipe I found where they cook the whole heads IN the stew, removed and squeezed out (they get so soft), blended with raw garlic and then re-added before baking.
Beans:Though the origin lay in the giant favas, White beans are the name of the game, and the French white bean to try and imitate is known as “Tarbais.” I have no clue where to find it, but I was able to pick up a different French white(ish) bean at whole foods on my shopping trip called “Flageolet.” Known as the “caviar of beans,” I’m not sure if cassoulet is the best dish to bring out their innate qualities, but they have a great creaminess, good texture, and are small! Which is a nice factor to have in this big hot mess of baked meat and starch.
Though of course, Navy Beans work just as great a substitute, along with Cannelini and other white beans. Just make sure you’re using Dried pods, unless you need to make a very quick, one-day version of this recipe, then you’ll need canned/precooked versions. Otherwise, you need at least 2 days to soak and cook the beans PROPERLY; lotsa issues with the dried stuff.
Meat: When initially starting this adventure into cassoulet, I thought forming/deciding on a recipe would be relatively simple; boy was I wrong. Not only is the options for protein inclusions long, but at times it can be quite indecisive recipe to recipe; it became very difficult figuring out what was “necessary” and what was an additional thrill. Just looking at the Holy Trinity alone (as mentioned above) shakes up the field one is trying so hard to narrow down: the Father contains pork loin and ham along with the sausage, with only a bit of goose; the Son sticks purely to a leg of Mutton and maybe some partridge; and the Ghost uses everything in Father’s, adding in Lard, Mutton, and Duck/Goose. It was enough to make me lose faith that I’d ever make anything decent.
After much thought though, and reading up in my Larousse Gastronomique, I think I’ve come to figure out a tiered system to follow when trying to make as authentic a cassoulet as one can.
Shoulder of Pork and/or Mutton
Almost Absolute, or Strongly Considered options:
Personal/Fun additions, Unrequired:
Other Poultry Meat
Salt Pork or Fresh Lard
My decisions here are mainly based off the fact that you NEED to make a stew, thus needing pork shoulder (or mutton if following other regional styles). Pork skin has been deemed required of ALL cassoulets, as mentioned earlier in the 1966 decree. Sausage is very strongly traditional, whereas the Duck Confit is indeed regionally traditional but not used as fundamentally. Ham Hocks seem to make their way into a lot of recipes I’ve found, and are always a great addition in any soup or stew. Finally, though not discussed in any article I’ve found yet, it seems the addition of SOME form of Cured Pork is also quite popular, about at the same level as the Ham Hocks. Pancetta is seen in more recipes to fill that role, and I like the fat content it has and simpleness in comparison to Prosciutto.
Sausage:Definitely one of the required proteins, the traditional sausage used is from and called “Toulouse,” so if you have any butcher that makes Toulouse-style sausage then you’re good. If not, then no problem, luckily for us it’s a VERY easy sausage to find a substitute for. It’s basically just an all-pork sausage (continuing the piggy theme) that uses a lot of garlic as its spice/flavoring. So just try to find a garlic-pork brat or something (though I found that not as easy to find a quality version, had to visit 3 stores to get a tasty, coarsely-stuffed Ukranian) and you should be good.
Cracking:There’s a particular practice in the baking of this thick, crusty casserole that emphasize its wonderful top, so-called “Cracking the Crust.” The idea is simple, yet brilliant and wonderful. As the dish bakes, and the breadcrumby-top browns and gets crunchy, one takes a spoon (or other utensil) and smacks this against the surface, breaking the layer that’s starting to form. This is pushed down into the dish, the newly broken top is sprinkled with more duck fat (maybe more breadcrumbs) and left to bake another crust. This is broken again, and the process repeats, as many times as one wants. Very classic, traditional French recipes are said to do this at least 7 times; I find if one wants to use this practice then at least 3-4 times makes a good result. Not sure how many times I ended up doing it, properly at least, but it made a yummy looking, crunchy top.
The Dish:The whole recipe is named after a casserole dish, one should make sure they have a good dish. From what I remember, the “ideal” dish is something that is VERY wide, not actually that deep, so as to get the maximum crust to filling ratio. Though really any good ceramic or clay casserole dish would work.
The real thing I wanted to mention was just to not do what I did, and fill it all the way to the top, that baby WILL bubble over while it cooked (you’ll see what I mean in some pictures). Keep at least half an inch of space for safety.
1 lb dried Flageolet Beans
6 oz Pork Skin
Salt and Pepper
Duck Fat (lots of it)
1-2 Ham Hocks (unsmoked)
1 lb Pork Shoulder, cubed
1-2 oz thick-slice Pancetta, cubed
1 large or 2 small Heads of Garlic, whole
1 small Onion, large dice
2 Carrots, large dice
2 Bay Leaves
1 small can (6-8oz?) Whole Peeled Tomato, good quality
1 cup Red Wine
4 cups Dark Poultry Stock
½ a Duck’s worth Confit Meat (or two whole legs and thighs)
1 large or 2 medium-sized Garlic Pork Sausage + 5-8 cloves
¾-1 cup Breadcrumbs (home-made preferably)A Word On…
A Word On…
- Place Skin in large pot, covering with cold, salted water. Bring to a boil and simmer for half an hour, or until “tender” and bends easy.
- Remove, letting cool briefly on the cutting board, reserving some of the cooking liquid in the fridge.
- Slice into large ribbons, carefully roll up into tight bundles, and tie with string (Note, should really make sure it’s not the colored, “wax” based ones… not good later on). Reserve.
- Take the chilled, reserved skin-water and cover the dried Beans by a couple inches (they will expand). Place in fridge overnight.
- Combine Ham Hocks and Pork Shoulder in bowl, tossing in a generous coating of salt and pepper. Cover and move to fridge overnight.
Directions – Day 2
- Heat up large Dutch Oven or similar pot to a medium-high temperature, tossing a nicely even layer of Duck Fat to coat the bottom.
- Pat Ham Hocks and Pork Shoulder dry. Lay in the Ham Hock/s and as many of the skin bundles as you can fit into the hot oil.
- Sear hocks on each side for 1-2 minutes, turning when browned. Roll the skin around occasionally to lightly crisp the edges and color the flat side. Remove both from pan.
- Lay the dried Shoulder into the pan, in batches if needed, touching and turning only once the side is browned. Remove once meat is well caramelized, about 5 minutes of cooking at most.
- Toss in chopped Pancetta, stirring around in the hot fat until golden (will not take long).
- Add in Onions, Carrots, Garlic Heads, and Bay Leaves, coating in fat and stirring every so often until edges are lightly caramelized.
- Remove Tomatoes from can, squeezing out as much of the juices as you can (reserve, don’t throw away). Crush in fingers and throw in with the veggies, cooking about 1-2 minutes.
- Deglaze pan with Wine, reducing the liquid by half.
- Re-add the removed meat and cover with tomato juice and 2 cups of Stock. Cover pan, bring to a simmer, and cook at least 1 ½ hours, or until “tender” (well, getting tender, don’t think it really matters).
- Drain and rinse the Beans thoroughly, adding them to a pot of boiling water. Simmer 2-3 minutes, drain and rinse once again.
- Add beans to simmering pot, cooking for 2-3 hours or until tender and cooked through.
- Remove from heat, let cool on counter and move to fridge (or other similarly cold area, bit pot…) to sit overnight.
Directions – Day 3
- Remove Hock, Shoulder meat, Skin, and Garlic Heads from the cold stew.
- Peel skin and meat from hocks, reserving skin on the side and Chopping/Shredding the meat along with the shoulder.
- Unroll and clean the skins (including the hock), slicing into flat rectangles. Transfer to line the bottom of a large, wide casserole dish, which you would have brushed with duck fat, covering the bottom and partway up the sides. (Sorry, I thought I got a picture of this but… guess I didn’t).
- Finely chop any skin leftover, mixing them back into the stew with the other chopped meat.
- Add another cup or so of Stock to the beans and meat, moving it back on the heat and bringing to a simmer.
- While this heats up, squeeze out the soft, cooked garlic pulp into a (mini) food processor. Add in the raw garlic and puree until smooth.
- Fold this into the stew, let simmer about 15 minutes.
- Ladle some of the hot mixture halfway up the casserole dish (or, halfway to how much you want to fill it).
- Reheat the Duck Confit: roast in baking dish at 375-400F. Once excess fat has melted off and starts sizzling, remove from oven.
- Pour melted fat into large sauté pan heated to medium, use to cook your Pork Sausage through (time will depend on size, I suggest covering pan).
- Remove skin from duck and pull meat from bones, shredding the larger pieces. Layer this evenly on top of the stew in the casserole, and cover in the other half of the mixture.
- Let cooked sausage rest on cutting board, slice on a bias, and arrange on top of casserole.
- Gently spread a final thin layer of remaining meat and beans over the sausage. From here, either move to finish the dish or cover and transfer fridge, reserving for the next day.
Directions – Finishing (possible Day 4)
- If having spent night in the fridge, remove in the morning, letting it naturally warm to room temperature.
- Heat oven to 350F.
- Sprinkle a thin, even layer of Breadcrumbs over the top, carefully pouring some of the duck fat over them.
- Move into oven at least 2 hours before service.
- Check ever 15-20 minutes; when the top is browned and starting to crust, push it down with a spoon, dragging in any really caramelized and crispy bits that may form on the edge of the dish.
- Sprinkle on a bit more breadcrumbs and duck fat to re-fill in the spaces, close the oven and repeat at least 3-4 more times, until satisfied. I suggest a total of 3 hours cooking to yield the perfect evenly browned, deeply colored top.
- Remove from oven, let rest 5-10 minutes and serve, scooping carefully to get every layer of sausage, confit, skin, and stew.
- Enjoy the result of your long efforts.
I have been wanting to make this guy ever since I started planning the Duck Confit itself, but the multi-day prep kept me needing a certain kind of work schedule for the week, things kept coming up, and a recipe I had hoped to make one or two weeks after the maillard got pushed back over a month. And let me say, it was worth the wait.
It wasn’t quite as intense and overpowering in the fat and richness department as I actually thought it’d be, which I certainly don’t mind. Instead the flavor filled and flowed through the palette, a gently powerful warmth and fullness perfectly characteristic of any proper, winter-derived casserole. The beans were soft and creamy, banishing any negative memory I’ve had of legumes forever, replacing with the delicious perfection of white haricot heaven.
Soft meats, chewy sausage, rich chunks of pork skin and confit round the mouthfeel up, bolstered by a thickly crunchy top and spicy garlic undertone. All of it combining into a deeply satisfying mouthful to get you through any part of the cold months.
Primary Pairing – Cahors
Despite its oft tendencies for concentrated, super-dark wine, Malbec rarely has that much going for it in the tannin and, often, acid and body content. Which makes the hot, hot Southwestern region of Cahors PERFECT to eat with this area dish. Did you know that Malbec was originally a French grape, and only travelled to Chile and Argentina due to certain immigrants? It wasn’t that well liked by the growers though, so when they found their chance to get rid of it (via vineyard replanting after a bad freeze), they took it, with the vine being decimated in numbers. Cahors, though, still sticks to using their regional grape, pressing and fermenting it out into the inky, higher alcohol glass-fillers, sometimes even adding a bit of the supper-tannic and fellow inky grape Tannat.
And this dish needs a good amount of body and richness to stand up with the strong, meaty and beany stewed flavors, but the only actual texture to be found is from the slightly chewy sausage. So though tannin is much requested, we don’t want a lot, which is where the Malbec comes into its element, pairing amazingly with these oddly disjointed requirements.
If you can’t find a Cahors, Madiran would be my second main pick; it’s close and just as dark, using pure tannat grapes. Other southwestern regions could offer some greatly suitable options, but it’s harder to find anything besides those two. Bordeaux wines would serve an easier to find and similarly good pairing, preferably the darker varieties from the Left Bank; though the Right Bank St. Emilion and similar would offer a nicely refreshing, slightly acidic possibility to cut through the dish quite deliciously. Finally, South American Malbec is generally NOT a good substitute, unless it’s a good quality, concentrated and oak aged version.
There wasn’t all that much to this particular bottle, but it suited its purpose just fine. A bit of tart perfume on the nose and some plummy cassis in the mouth and that was it; the delight in this guy stuck, as many French wines do, in how it filled the mouth. And fill it did, along with a good mouthful of cassoulet, the two standing poignantly side by side, neither of them standing down or messing with the other, simply letting me enjoy the flavors and components of each without issue. Let me just say that the bottle didn’t last long past dinner in our house.
Secondary Pairing – Dopplebock
Something about the absolute rustic-ness, soft meat-heavy and browned stew of this just makes me crave a nice foamy glass of beer. After another consultation with my beer friend, she made the perfect suggestion of picking a Dopplebock, which was soon followed by my own reaction of “Of Course! Makes so much sense!” At least I was close, my tastebuds craving something on the darker, hoppy amber-malty side.
For those who don’t know what a dopplebock is, it’s basically a beer made with Lager Yeast, generally used for those really light, pale, fresher styled fermented items. Unlike other lagers, such as pilsner or certain wheat beers, Dopplebocks use MUCH darker roasted malts(barley), resulting in a drink of amber to dark brown complexion. This thus ends up as a very malty, nicely caramelized and sorta rich flavor, much more so than lighter lagers (or the simple “Bock”), which retains a certain freshness and cleanness in its character from the delicate lager yeast and fermentation process (which is cool, slow and gentle). With the hop level being at a low-ish strength, one has a very refreshing drink with a scrumptious texture and body, perfect to match the cassoulet’s chew much like the Cahors Tannin, with the light hops and distinctive clean character standing up to through the fat and flavor.
Coincidentally lucky for me, I actually still had a couple bottles of my homemade doppelbock in the fridge! So I was able to enjoy a glass of wine and beer with this delicious dish, and they both behaved very nice and similarly. I’ll admit it wasn’t the best quality dopplebock vs what one could find in a store, but all of its flavor and technical notes held and shone through in the mouth without detracting from the food. Put simply, both beer and cassoulet could be tasted at the same time without any aspect being destroyed or lowered in quality; a perfect pairing.
Other beer substitutes, if one can’t find a decent dopple or want to try other things, would probably be a good, darker colored Rye beer, maybe one of the Belgian Trappist Ales, or Porters.
Honorable Mention for your Consideration– Young Red Banyuls, Maury, and other VDN
Or “Vin doux Naturels,” are Fortified Sweet Wines made in the same or similar technique as Port, and are a specialty of many regions in Southern France, especially those found in Roussillon (next to Languedoc). The frontrunner in known popularity is Banyuls, though others such as Maury, Muscat Beaumes de Venise (in Rhone), etc can make options that are just as good. Besides the sweet, orange colored Muscat wines, most of these (again like Port) are made with red grapes, almost exclusively Grenache, yielding liquid that’s dark, fruity and tannic in youth ageing to deeply brown, smooth amber elixers when aged (at the winery, not at your house, won’t happen sorry).
Of course, these are all Dessert wines, something one would never usually consider along with anything but a sweet treat at the end of the meal, or as a digestif to sip and contemplate on a lonely night in front of the fireplace. Used correctly, however, I think these are wines that could do beautifully with certain savory dishes, of which I think Cassoulet stands out as a strong contender, considering certain requirements are met. The well aged, rancio white and dark brown versions are of course out of the picture, but the dark young reds still have great potential. Same with the Vintage Ports, they possess a richness in body and chewy tannins that, on their own, go amazing with any rich and heavy foods. A strong enough acid base is required in these wines to stand up to the sugar content, and this can cut through the fatty skin and stew meat with little to no problem.
When we deal with Sweetness in wine, it’s usually contended by pairing with similarly just-as-sweet dishes so the wine doesn’t overpower and disrupt its non-sweet flavors (somewhat complex process, don’t even know the specifics myself haha). On the other hand, we can ALSO use sweetness to cut through certain kinds of senses; in particular, it’s used quite successfully with Spicy and Salty foods. When done a certain way, with the confit and sausage and seasoned beans and etc, cassoulet can naturally have a strong Salt backbone to it (not like “oh my god so much salt” of course, but in the sense of bacon and cured items have on their own). Thus, I believe it can stand up to these hot, dusty sweet wines from one of its home regions, and make a very unique and beautiful pairing. I could talk more about what kinds of flavors and aromas one could get from these Grenache-centric fortified bombs and how it’d go with cassoulet, but I’ve already written enough s#$& as it is.
My main suggestion, particularly for the everyday shopper, is to try and find a Maury wine; they’re the same style as Banyuls, though usually seen at lower quality (definitely more Rustic) and often offer a better deal price wise. The Maury region also has a dry style, “Maury Sec” AOC, and Banyuls has a separate dry AOC called Colliures, so one could also get a powerful dry wine from either region if they don’t want something sweet.