Recipe for Cassoulet

October 8, 2009

Serves 8.

A beautiful, well-browned crust is one of the glories of cassoulet, but how often the crust should be broken and pushed down into the cassoulet while it cooks is open to debate. Etienne Rousselot, owner of Hostellerie Etienne, whose recipe is adapted here, recommends breaking the crust often enough to keep the beans moist – at least four times. Others say that it should be broken every hour. We prefer to break the crust only as necessary (see steps 6 and 8). Rousselot defies Castelnaudary tradition by often using duck instead of goose; he finds it more tender. Cassoulet may be cooked for seven hours straight, but we prefer it cooked over two days.

# 4 cups of dried great northern or other small white beans
# 4 fresh ham hocks (about 1 lb. each)
# 3 large yellow onions, peeled and quartered
# 5 sprigs thyme
# Salt and freshly ground black pepper
# 1 third lb. fresh pork rind, cubed
# 1 ham bone
# 1 tbsp. duck fat
# 1 lb. unseasoned fresh pork sausage, (about 4 links), cut into 2″ pieces
# 1 large head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled (about 3 quarter cup)
# Confit of 1 quartered duck or 4 whole legs
# 1 quarter tsp. nutmeg

1. Rinse beans thoroughly, pick through and discard stones, then set beans aside.

2. Place ham hocks in a large pot. Add 1 onion, thyme, and salt and pepper. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partiallly covered, for 2 hours. Remove from heat, allow to cool for 15 minutes,then drain ham hocks, discarding onion and thyme. Cut meat from each hock into 2 pieces. Discard bones and set meat aside.

3. Meanwhile, place pork rind, ham bone and 1 onion in a large,heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until pork rind is rendered, about 20 minutes. Add beans and enough water to cover by 1 – 2 ” (about 8 cups) and season with salt. Bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low and cook until beans are tender, about 45 minutes. Adjust salt, if necessary, then set beans aside to cool.

4. Heat duck fat in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausages and cook, turning to brown on all sides, for about 10 minutes. Place garlic, remaining onion and 1/2 cup water in a blender and puree until smooth. Add garlic paste to sausages and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook, turning sausages occasionally, for 10 minutes more.

5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a slotted spoon, remove and discard ham bone and onion from beans (it is okay if some pieces of onion remain). Using a slotted spoon, transfer about half the beans with pork rind to a heavy wide-mouthed 8 serving-size cassole. Assemble cassoulet in layers: place the meat from the ham hocks on top of the beans and cover with sausages and garlic paste. Divide duck into 8 pieces by separating drumsticks from thighs and, if using a whole duck, splitting breasts in half crosswise through the bone. Arrange duck on sausages, then spoon in remaining beans with pork rind. Season with nutmeg and add just enough reseved bean cooking liquid to cover the beans (about 3 cups.) Reserve remaining liquid. Bake, uncovered, until cassoulet comes to a simmer and a crust begins to form, about 1 hour.

6. Reduce heat to 250 degrees and cook for 3 hours, checking every hour or so to make sure cassoulet is barely simmering (a little liquid should be bubbling around edges of cassoulet). if cassoulet appears dry, break crust (browned top layer) by gently pushing it down with the back of a spoon, allowing a new layer of beans to rise to the surface. Add just enought reserved bean cooking liquid (or water) to moisten beans.

7. Remove cassoulet from oven. Allow to cool completely, then cover with a lid or aluminum foil and refrigerate overnight.

8. Remove cassoulet from refrigerator and allow to warm to room temperature for at least 45 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 1 hour. When cassoulet begins to simmer, break crust and add enough warm water to just cover beans (about 1 cup). Reduce heat to 250 degrees and bake, breaking crust and adding water as needed, for 3 hours. Remove cassoulet from oven and allow to rest for 15 – 20 minutes. Serve cassoulet from the cassole, breaking the crust at the table.

This recipe was first published in “Saveur” in Issue #24 and has been slightly edited.

For serious food lovers, a simple, but authentic, dish of humble origins can surpass the most elaborate and dazzling display of culinary prowess.

Consider the Cassoulet, a peasant dish whose main ingredient is beans; white beans flavored with sausage, pork rind, potted fowl and perfumed with garlic and a sprig of fresh thyme. Its gastronomic appeal has endured throughout the centuries garnering a sort of cult status among the culinary cognoscenti.

According to legend, cassoulet was invented during the Hundred Year War (1377 to 1453) when the fortress town of Castelnaudary in Southwestern France was besieged by the British and the locals were reduced to near starvation. Out of this hunger and desperation, Cassoulet was born from the meager dried beans, sausage and preserved poultry supplies on hand.

Cassoulet was named for the cassole, the primitive earthenware pot in which the cassoulet is cooked. The two are inextricably linked, as its distinctive shape, slanted narrow at the base and wide at its mouth maximizes the beans’ exposure to the oven’s heat, forming the true cassoulet’s signature “crust.” As per tradition, the pot is glazed on the inside and around the lip, but raw on the outside. Rustic and simple, the “vrai” cassole is as sturdy and hearty as the white beans that give cassoulet its soul. When tapped, the true cassoles produce a distinctive sound, like glassware.

For decades, American chefs have trekked to France to smuggle back the rare lingot beans, but the final missing ingredient has been the ‘veritable” cassole. One renowned chef even convinced a potter in Minnesota to recreate a stoneware version, but in the search for authenticity, nothing can replace the clay dug from the Issel earth where the cassoulet was born.

There, along the fabled Route du Cassoulet, in the village of Mas-Saintes Puelles, outside of Castelnaudary, is the artisanal pottery workshop of the Not Brothers – the only place on earth where true cassoles are hand-spun from local clay as they have been for centuries.

Unlike most terra cotta pots, these extra thick cassoles are fired at extremely high temperatures to insure that they are rock hard, built to withstand the high temperatures that cassoulet requires. With age (and use), these cassoles will darken and acquire a rich patina.

Authentic Poterie Not Freres cassoles are now available. They are produced in limited quantities and can be ordered in three sizes from:
Savoir Vivre Utensils, P.O. Box 63685, Philadelphia PA 19147
Phone: 215-218-0152. Fax: 215-218-0153
or on-line at http://www.SavoirVivreUtensils.com

For serving four persons: approx. 10 ½” dia. $66 + Shipping
For serving six persons: approx. 11 ¾” dia. $75 + Shipping
For serving eight persons: approx. 13” dia. $84 + Shipping

(Cassoulet is too much work and too good to only make two portions but it actually gets better when re-heated for a second or even a third day’s meal.)