“Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.” – Julia Child
Cassoulet is one of those dishes over which there is endless drama. Like bouillabaisse in Marseilles, paella in Spain, and chili in Texas, it is a dish for which there are innumerable recipes and about which discussions quickly turn fierce. Cassoulet is not so much a recipe as an excuse for an argument. Cassoulet is said to date back to the 14th century siege of Castelnaudary during the Hundred Years’ War, when citizens created a communal dish so hearty their revivified soldiers sent the invaders packing.
I was 8 years old when I tasted my first cassoulet, and it has been a lifelong love affair. When it appears on a menu, I am compelled to order it, and have never been served the same dish twice. Lamb, rabbit, breadcrumbs, pheasant, partridge and varieties of bean too numerous to mention have all made an appearance at one time or another. When I first prepared the dish shortly after we moved to North Carolina, one of the guests stated that it was most definitely the first time cassoulet had been served in Northampton County. If I am remembered for nothing else, let it be that I brought civilization to the wilderness.
A 1960’s copy of Larousse Gastronomique by Prosper Montagne quotes a historic comedy about le cassoulet de Castelnaudary at chez Clemence where the woman of the house has been cooking the same cassoulet for 20 years.
“She replenishes the pot sometimes with goose, sometimes with pork fat, sometimes she puts in a sausage … The basis remains, and this ancient and precious substance gives it a taste, which one finds in the paintings of the old Venetian masters, in the amber flesh tints of their women.”
A seductive dinner, yes. But to the French, so much more.
Prosper prosaically described cassoulet as a “Haricot (shell) bean stew”, and goes on to quote “certain gastronomes” who insist that the cassoulet from Castelnaudary (in South West France) is the only true version, and “serious culinary writers” (including himself) recognise a “Trinity” of cassoulets – those of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, and Toulouse.
He then goes on to differentiate them:
“The three types of cassoulet should have the following differences: that of Castelnaudary (the forebear, the leader), is prepared with fresh pork, ham, knuckle of pork, and fresh bacon rinds; that of Carcassonne with the addition to the above of a shortened leg of mutton, and partridges in season; that of Toulouse, always in addition to the ingredients already mentioned for the cassoulet de Castelnaudary: breast of pork, Toulouse sausage, mutton (neck or boned breast) and confit d’oie (preserved goose) or confit de canard (preserved duck).”
In the end, the true liturgy of cassoulet isn’t in the recipe, but rather in the special moment when friends gather around a large, steaming earthenware caçòla and meal becomes Mass. Cassoulet has such a religion around it because it’s the plat de partage — the dish of sharing. When a cassoulet arrives at the table, bubbling with aromas, something magical happens — it’s Communion around a dish.
If you want to prepare cassoulet at home, the easiest way is with Dartagnan’s Cassoulet Recipe Kit. It’s a pretty fool-proof recipe, and one you can get creative with.
3 pounds French Coco Tarbais Beans, rinsed and picked over
Water, as needed
12 ounces Ventrèche, in one piece
10 cloves garlic, peeled
2 medium onions, skinned and cut in half
5 whole cloves
1 carrot, coarsely chopped
1 bouquet garni, made of 5 parsley sprigs, 3 celery leaves, 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf and 10 peppercorns, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied
6 Duck Leg Confit, cut in half at the joint
6 1/2 ounces Duck and Veal Demi-Glace, dissolved in 3 1/2 cups of water
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 packages Duck and Armagnac Sausage
1 pound French Garlic Sausage, cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup Duck Fat, at room temperature
Place beans in a large non-reactive container(s) and cover with cool water by several inches. Leave them to soak at room temperature overnight, checking the water level every so often as the beans will absorb quite a bit of water.
Drain beans then add them to a large, heavy pot along with the ventrèche, garlic, carrots, and bouquet garni. Press the pointed end of each clove into the outside of the onion, add to pot. Add enough cool water to cover the mixture by at least 3 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat then reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the beans are barely tender, about 1 hour.
Drain the bean mixture. Discard onion and bouquet garni. Remove ventrèche, cut into 1/2-inch cubes and set aside. Season beans with 1 teaspoon of salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
In a medium skillet over high heat, sear duck and Armagnac sausages until just browned. Remove from the pan, cut into thirds and set aside.
Lightly grease a large casserole, preferably earthenware or enameled cast-iron, with duck fat on the 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 half of the duck fat. Cover with remaining beans.
Stir tomato paste into demi-glace/water mixture, mix well until dissolved. Pour evenly over the beans then drizzle with the remaining duck fat.
Bake until hot and bubbling, about 2½ 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 and bring up to room temperature before proceeding.
Increase (or preheat) oven to 400 degrees F. Bake cassoulet until the top is nicely browned and a crust has formed, about 45 minutes. If at this point, cassoulet is not heated through, cut open the crust, and pour in an additional 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. (I usually make this 2-3 days in advance. It just gets better with time!)
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.