If food is the way into someone’s soul, then cassoulet is like a secret shortcut. It is solid, filling, warm, comforting, interesting and multi-dimensional – just like the best people in your life. It is the definitive comfort food, with a flare. Although cassoulet got a snooty reputation when gastro pubs started turning up, with their decadently fatty and flavorful food accompanied by $8 pints of European beer, cassoulet is, in fact, just peasant food. At its heart, cassoulet is simply bean stew made with lots of meat. Yummy, fatty, salty, delicious meat.
There are as many ways to make cassoulet as there are people who make it. As peasant food, everyone’s mother had their own special way of making it, and the meats that went into it varied by what was available in a given time and place. It is not fussy, but it is no one-trick pony . If you read enough recipes online, it’s easy to get scared. There are people who swear you have to have the perfect pot, you have to layer everything just so, each step more precise than the one that came before it, and take hours….
Nonsense. It’s bean stew that someone’s grandma used to make while also tending the farm all day. It’s simple. And it’s a favorite in my house, so I’ll tell you how I do it, then encourage you to find your own special way, and pass it down to the ones you love.
First, understand the ingredients. Cassoulet is made with cannellini beans. They are available in most grocery stores, often with the “gourmet” or international foods. I prefer to buy them dry, but you can generally find them canned as well. (Personally, I think the canned beans get mealy and mushy, and icky.) Then there’s the meat, and this is where people get really militant. I can’t live without duck and lamb in my cassoulet. Sometimes I throw in sausage also, but not always. Bacon, however, is a must.
Then, there are the pots and pans. In a perfect world, you have a huge, cast-iron casserole dish that you can use to brown your meat, cook up the beans and veggies on the stove top, and then throw the whole thing in the oven to braise slowly. If not, fear not, there are work-arounds. If you don’t have a casserole dish that can work stove-top and in the oven, you can brown in a skillet and cook in a Pyrex casserole, no problem.
Ready? This is simple. I promise. Here’s a recipe for 4 people’s-worth of cassoulet (with plenty of leftovers.)
1 bag of dry cannellini beans
4 duck breasts with bone and skin, or 1 whole duck cut up
4 lamb shanks
½ pound of thick cut bacon
1 pound of sausage links (optional)
Garlic (to your taste)
4 stalks of celery (or so)
4 carrots (or thereabouts)
1 24 oz can of diced tomatoes
Whole Herbs: bay leaf, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, parsley
Salt and Pepper
Chicken or Suck Stock (optional)
Stale bread for crumb topping
HOW TO MAKE IT
PREP: If using dry beans, soak them overnight.
Preheat oven to 225-degrees.
Salt and pepper the duck and lamb, leave out for 20 mins or so before starting.
1. Brown your meat. If you have a big casserole dish that you can use to both brown your meat and cook your cassoulet, use it. I usually use a separate cast-iron skillet to brown my meat. Either way, this is VITAL, and you MUST brown your meat on all sides, properly, in order to get the right texture. Skip this step and you risk making soup.
Duck leg quarters, browned in cast-iron skillet.
If you are not browning in the pot that you will be cooking in, then you want to gather the crunchy browned bits for flavor. When I’m done browning the meat, I simply deglaze with a little bit of white wine, throw in some stock to get it all up, and then throw this mixture in the pot at the end.
Deglaze with a little white wine, and some stock to get all the yummies into your final dish, if you are browning in a different pan than you are cassoulet-ing in.
2. Slice the raw bacon into small pieces and cook them until crispy in the pot that you are going to prepare the cassoulet in. (Or separately in a skillet and pour the bacon AND the fat into the casserole.) Do not drain the fat, leave everything, including the crispy bits stuck to the pot, in the pot. Yum. Crispy bits. (Other folks will swear that you have to line your cassoulet dish with raw bacon strips. I’ve done this. It’s yummy. But it’s a pain the ass and I don’t think it’s quite as yummy as the flavor you get when you cook it first, and then you get bacon bits in every bite. Yum. Bacon bits in bites.) Turn off the heat.
3. While the bacon and its fat are still hot, put in the herbs so that the flavors will render into the fat. If you are more persnickety than I am, you can tie them in a neat bundle to be retrieved later. I just throw them all in, and leave them in.
Bacon and herbs, awaiting beans and tomatoes.
4. Dice up the carrots, onion, celery and garlic. Toss them in the cassoulet pot with the bacon and herbs. Mix everything together, turn the heat on, mediumish. Once the veggies start softening a little, turn the heat off.
5. Add the beans and tomatoes. Stir everything up.
6. Add enough stock or water to cover everything, and bring it to a boil. Turn off the heat. (If you browned meat in a separate pan, this is when you throw in your deglazed brown fatty bits.) (Yum, fatty bits.)
Adding veggies, to soften and marry the flavors.
7. Now it’s magic time. With your beans and veggies in place and steamy, situate your BROWNED meat on top so that they will braise, but not boil. It will be resting on the liquid, but not submerged. Again, submerge it in liquid and you’re making soup. (Yes, other people disagree with me on this.)
Ready for the oven, nestled in to slowly cook.
If you’re adding sausage, then mix the sausage in with everything else, but still position the duck and lamb on top.
8. With the lid on, place the whole thing in a 225-degree oven. “Low and slow” makes the meat fall-off-the-bone tender, and the yummy fat will drip into the beans below. Yum. Generally, I find that it takes about 2 hours at 225-degrees to get the meat cooked and beans soft but not mealy. If the meat is falling off the bone, it’s ready for its crumb topping. Take it out of the oven.
NOTE: If you are taking this to someone else’s house for dinner, now is the time to transport. It can sit out for a while and not be a problem. Just pick up the cooking process, wherever you leave it, when you get to the next oven.
TURN THE OVEN TO 350-DEGREES.
9. Take your leftover bread, and put it in a food processor with some onion, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley. Mince it all up to crumbs to make a crumb topping. (Sometimes, I add Parmesan cheese too.)
10. Go ahead and push the meat into the stew at this point. Put on a layer of breadcrumbs, and drizzle it with melted butter. Add another layer of bread crumbs, drizzle it with melted butter too.
11. With the top off, put it all back in the 350-degree oven until the crumb topping is brown and crunchy.
Serve it up, moan, smile, enjoy.
There, look at that, 11 easy steps and you’ve cooked the hearty shortcut to someone’s soul. (Or, in my case, really you’ve just served up your own soul, which makes it even more delightful. And even more wonderful when they smile and moan – that’s soul-speak for “thank you, I appreciate you.”)
Anyway, learn the basics, then do what you will. This is just how my imaginary French grandmother made cassoulet. Your imaginary French-grandmother may have made it differently. But if you get the basics down, you can try all sorts of variations that will be wonderful in their own way. (Just like you.)