In some book somewhere, Julia Child has a fantastic quote about cassoulet. I can't locate it at the moment, but it's something about cassoulet being a food ideally suited for a lumberjack. In Manitoba. In January.
Like I said, it's awesome. And it's hidden deep inside some text that apparently isn't part of Project Gutenberg.
In the readily indexed Larousse Gastronomique, we find that cassoulet is "A dish, originally from Languedoc, which consists of haricot (navy) beans cooked in a stewpot with pork rinds and seasonings." Simple as that.
But then they go into a discussion of longstanding ingredient disagreements and cassoulet rivalries in a variety of provencal French towns. The cassoulet section also includes recipes that insist pretty strongly that cassoulet must contain such-and-such a thing or must be made such-and-such a way.
I've seen the dish served at high prices in plenty of fancy restaurants, but here's the thing: at its core, cassoulet simply just what Julia and Larousse initially said. It's a beautiful, economical peasant food.
The finished cassoulet: ducky, porky, bean-y and tasty
Now, if you've ever made a cassoulet, you might balk at my use of the word "economical," above, but in truth, the French farmhouse wives that created the first cassoulets weren't going for haute cuisine... they were using up what was stored around the farm.
They kept ducks, and preserving the duck legs in a fat just happens to be pretty practical for those wondering what to do with a bunch of duck legs. They had cured bacon at hand. They had pork sausages, which were a frugal way of using up random pig bits. They had dried beans in the larder and root vegetables stocked in the root cellar. All the things that went into a cassoulet recipe were part of their everyday lives.
A clove-studded onion gives this dish a hint of the exotic.
Most cassoulet recipes are going to ask you to start with dry beans, soak them, simmer them with spices, etc. etc.
Now, I've made cassoulet from the bottom up, preparing the sausages myself, making the duck confit from scratch, soaking and simmering the beans... the whole nine yards. I'm here to tell you that yes, you can do all that, but that means you'll only have the time and energy to make cassoulet once (or maybe twice) in your lifetime, and that'd be a darn shame. Because it's really, really tasty.
If you make cassoulet the lazy way, you're more likely to make it a bit more often, and regardless of what Larousse might say, the end result of the lazy method is not so different from the "took me three weeks to do everything myself" method.
For most of us here in the States, duck confit is a bit challenging to come by, but if you happen to live in a large city (or in close proximity to a duck farm) you may, like me, have some on hand. I get mine from FrescoDirecto, where you can find them in the deli Tongue & More area (a title that always makes me giggle).
No duck legs? No problem. Skip the confit and make your cassoulet with beans, sausages and bacon. You could probably even get away with veg stock, veggie bacon and veggie sausage to make it vegan. Whatever. It's all good. Just make it soon. This is food best suited for chilly stay-inside evenings, and those cool nights will soon give way to sweltering summer.
I used two clove-studded onions. They were small.
Cassoulazy (Serves 6-8)
1 medium-sized onion, peeled
8 whole cloves
1 1/2 cups good stock (chicken, duck or vegetable)
1-2 bay leaves
3 carrots, washed and sliced in 1" segments
3 cloves garlic, peeled
4 strips thick-cut bacon, sliced in half
1 pound garlicky pork sausages (I use sweet Italian sausages if I can find 'em)
A little bundle of fresh herbs, if you have 'em*
3 duck legs, confit (if you can locate duck confit, if not, skip 'em)
3 14oz cans navy beans (or cannellini beans), drained & rinsed
1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the crusty top (if desired)
2 cups breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1. Heat oven to 325° F.
2. Poke the cloves into the flesh of the onion. Place the onion in an ovenproof heavy-bottomed pot or a Dutch oven.
3. Pour the stock into the pan and add the bay leaves, carrots, garlic, bacon pieces, pork sausages and the bundle of herbs (if using).
4. Bring to a boil, lower heat to a simmer, and allow to simmer, covered, for 20 minutes.
5. Add duck legs (if using), beans and tomatoes to the pot. Grind black pepper over the mixture. (Do not add salt. The cured meats will make this dish plenty salty.)
6. Cover the Dutch oven or stockpot, carefully place in the center of the oven and let the mixture cook for 1 1/2 hours. When done, carefully remove the pot from the oven and pluck out the bay leaves, herbs and leg bones (the meat should fall away easily).
7. If you'd like a crispy top crust, combine the breadcrumbs with the parsley and olive oil and sprinkle this mixture atop the hot cassoulet at the end of the cooking process. Turn the oven up to about 400° F and bake the cassoulet, uncovered, for an additional 10-15 minutes to brown the breadcrumbs.
8. Serve hot with a crisp green salad and a nice lager, an ale or a rich red wine with moderate tannins.
*This is sometimes referred to as a bouquet garni. Parsley stems tied with a sprig each of rosemary, sage and thyme are nice. Enclose the herbs between two celery stalks, if you're so inclined.
This dish makes very tasty leftovers for lunch, so don't be afraid to make a batch that's far larger than you need.