It’s 7 degrees F outside and with the windchill, it feels like -19 degrees F. So of course, my husband and I decided that it was the perfect day to bundle up and go for a walk! I was on a mission since I had decided yesterday that I REALLy wanted to have some cassoulet and I knew that I only had some of the ingredients on hand. We walked first to Whole Foods which disappointingly did not have what I needed and then decided to go in the total opposite direction to another market. Thankfully Plum Market had the duck and armagnac sausage, demi-glace and duck fat that I needed. I already had the duck confit and the cassoulet beans which I had soaked overnight. We came home with our digits semi-frozen but feeling good so I set to work putting my cassoulet together. Many cultures have slow cooked beans and cured meats. Eastern European Jews eat cholent on Saturday for the Sabbath day hot meal, Americans grew up eating franks and beans, but no one has taken the slow cooked bean dish to greater heights than the Gascons of France. When Frances makes this dish, she makes enough for 12 and she and Matthew manage to consume all of it within a couple of sittings. We can no longer eat that way so I made a somewhat more manageable amount – enough for 6. Below is the recipe for 12 from D’Artagnan (where you can also purchase all of the specialty items if your grocer/butcher doesn’t carry them) along with my smaller amounts. It does actually get better the second day, so if you think you can eat your way through, go for the larger amount. The only real changes that I made were to use a good nitrite/nitrate-free bacon instead of ventreche (which is French pancetta) and to add a larger amount of herbs into my bouquet garni. I wish you could taste this. You just take a bite and close your eyes. There is a brief hushed silence while you allow the taste to be absorbed and – well, you actually sigh, it’s just that good.
Classic Gascon Cassoulet from D’Artagnan
Yield: 12 servings for original amounts. 6 portions if you use my changes. If I did not change an amount then that is because I didn’t change it from the original despite changing other amounts.
- 3 pounds French Coco Tarbais Beans, rinsed and picked over (I used 3 cups dried beans)
- Water, as needed
- 12 ounces Ventrèche, in one piece (I used about 8 ounces good bacon)
- 10 cloves garlic, peeled (I used 5 cloves)
- 2 medium onions, skinned and cut in half ( I used 1 large onion)
- 5 whole cloves
- 1 carrot, coarsely chopped (I used 3 thin carrots)
- 1 bouquet garni, made of 5 parsley sprigs, 3 celery leaves, 3 thyme sprigs, 1 bay leaf and 10 peppercorns, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied
- 6 Duck Leg Confit, cut in half at the joint (I used 3)
- 6 1/2 ounces Duck and Veal Demi-Glace, dissolved in 3 1/2 cups of water (I only ended up using about 2.25 cups and saved the remainder for another use)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 packages Duck and Armagnac Sausage (I used one package – 8.5 ounces)
- 1 pound French Garlic Sausage, cut into 12 slices (I used 8 ounces)
- 1/4 cup Duck Fat, at room temperature
- Add beans to a large, non-reactive container(s), cover completely with water and soak overnight at room temperature. Keep water level several inches above beans. Check back every so often as beans will absorb a lot of water. Use a few separate containers if necessary.
- Drain beans, put into a large, heavy pot with whole ventrèche, garlic, carrot, bouquet garni and onion that’s been studded with cloves. Add enough water to cover at least 3 inches above beans. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until beans are barely tender, about 1 hour.
- Drain beans, discard onion and bouquet garni, leave carrots and garlic with the beans. Remove ventrèche, cut into ½ inch squares, set aside.
- Season beans with 1 teaspoon salt and several grindings of pepper.
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
- In a medium skillet over high heat, sear duck and Armagnac sausages until just browned. Remove from pan, cut into thirds and set aside.
- Lightly grease large casserole, preferably earthenware or enameled cast-iron, with duck fat, on both bottom and sides. Place half of the bean mixture in casserole. Add duck legs, browned duck sausages, chopped ventrèche, and sliced garlic sausage. Drizzle with duck fat. Cover with remaining beans.
- Stir tomato paste into demi-glace/water mixture, mix well until dissolved. Pour evenly over bean mixture. Drizzle with remaining duck fat.
- Bake until hot and bubbling, about 2 ½ hours, checking occasionally to make certain the beans are not drying out. (See Ariane’s Recipe Tips below).
- NOTE: Cassoulet may be prepared ahead up to this point, then cooled and refrigerated up to 3 days. Remove from the refrigerator to bring up to room temperature before proceeding.
- Increase (or preheat) oven to 400 degrees F. Bake cassoulet until top is browned, about 45 minutes. If at this point, cassoulet is not heated through, cut open the crust, pour ½ cup of water and/or demi-glace, and continue to cook until hot all the way through.
- Serve immediately. Each guest should get an equal proportion of beans to meats.
Ariane’s Recipe Tips:
Don’t hesitate to open the crusty top to make sure the cassoulet is not drying out. The texture should be similar to a thick stew. If it seems too dry or pasty, add some liquid, such as stock, demi-glace or even water. Typically, you’ll have to cut the crust and add liquid about 3 times before it’s hot all the way through. Some cooks in Gascony think cassoulet will only be ready after 7 times of breaking the crust and adding liquid!
If adapting the recipe, try to use as many confit meats as possible. They will give the most flavor.
Cassoulet should always be eaten very hot!
Don’t forget the leftovers. Cassoulet is even better the next day after flavors have had time to develop and marry.