Cassoulet, the French Classic

Cassoulet a la Minnesota - Breaking the crust

Cassoulet is a classic of regional French cooking.  It is a combination of staple foods (beans, onions) and cured meats (sausages, bacon, and duck confit), with a very slow sauce (demi-glace) .  There are some regional differences (some recipes include lamb, some don’t) there is a particular kind of bean that is THE cassoulet bean, the Haricot Tarbais.  It can be obtained at a rare collection of specialty retailers, including D’Artagnan.  In fact, D’Artagnan will sell you a kit to make cassoulet which provides all that you need.

A group of eaters and cooks I belong to has used the D’Artagnan kits with delicious success in the past, but this year we decided to make a local cassoulet, with as much regional food as possible.  We did end up going with non-local beans (cannelli beans, bought locally at our co-op, but with no detail on where they were grown) and demi-glace (which I purchased in Normal, IL, at the Garlic Press, an excellent place to procure high quality equipment and ingredients)

Even if you purchase the kit, cassoulet is not a quick dish to make.  Here’s the process we went through when we made it.  I was providing ingredients, approximately double the amounts in the D’Artagnan kit, since we had a large group coming to eat it.  I didn’t have the recipe (my partner in cooking did), so I’ll just be chronicling the  process we went through.

Cups of Cannelli, after an overnight soak

We started the night before, soaking the beans.  When we gathered our Dutch ovens and ingredients together,  we did our basic mise en place, chopping lots of garlic and onions,  making bouquet garni, and chopping large quantities of pancetta.

Onions and Garlic, chopped

mmmm.... Red Wattle Pancetta!

The next step was to put the bouquet garni, bacon, onions, and garlic together with the beans and fresh water, and cook the beans for about an hour.

Beans ready for a simmer

If you buy the kit, you won’t need to then separate your confit from its duck fat.  Since I made the confit, here’s what we started with:

Non-kit confit, from the fridge

We had to heat the confit gently enough to melt the fat, and remove the duck legs from it.

Minus those quarts of duck fat

The next step was to crisp the skin of the duck confit, which I did in the now empty Dutch ovens.

Browning the confit to crisp the skin

The leftover crispy duck skin pieces were tasty, too.

After crisping up the duck, it was time to brown the sausages, and get ready to assemble the cassoulet.

Browning the Sausages

After all of the main elements were cooked, we layered beans, then sausage and duck, then more (undrained) beans, etc. into the Dutch ovens.

The last step before the oven was to drizzle the top layer of beans with the demi-glace.

Finally ready for the oven

Every hour or so (for the 3 hours in the oven), it was important to break any crust that formed atop the beans with a wooden spoon, and add water if it looked like it was dry.  This process is what makes the top layer of the beans seem more like a layer of bread crumbs.  Really.  Amazing.

This was a lot of work, with all the meat curing, and all the time it was cooking, but it was absolutely delicious.  Obviously not something for every week, but really worth celebrating.

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