Cassoulet is a dish that haunts me.
The more I cook, the more I search for complex simplicity. Sounds like an oxymoron but let me explain. While living in New York City, I was blown away by the availability of international and non-seasonal ingredients. Coming from a small city in eastern Canada, during the winter unless you were looking for root vegetables, cheap, tough cuts of meat and the most pedestrian of spices, cooking oils and cheeses you were out of luck. When I moved states side, all of a sudden, I had whatever food stuff I could dream of at my disposal. Food emporiums like Dean and Delucca [the original on Spring St.] and Balducci’s [the original on Broadway] were my neighbourhood go-tos. I was completely seduced by the opulent selection of food from all over the world.
In a teeny tiny kitchen in Brooklyn, I experimented with everything from foie gras to fresh artichokes. It was a wonderful time in my culinary journey. This was also the time that I started to collect cookbooks. At first I was drawn to encyclopedia types like The Joy of Cooking which were useful but lacked personality. When I discovered cook/authors everything changed. Julia Child, Julee Rosso, Sheila Lukins, Jacques Pepin, Joel Robuchon and Giuliano Bugialli and Marcella Hazan challenged me to stop relying on expensive ingredients and learn to cook in earnest.
Fourty years later the journey continues. Don’t get me wrong, I still can’t walk by a gourmet food store without having a quick look up and down the aisles but I’m much more discerning in what I purchase. Now when I cook, I want to discover the magic in combining simple flavours and ancient techniques with modern equipment. Time is critical for this style of cooking so when I have the time I take it.
No dish is more complex in it’s simplicity than cassoulet. I’ve been craving cassoulet for months. Our frigid winters make me want to eat big hearty meals. I spent the better part of my December reading-time comparing cassoulet recipes starting with Julia Child’s very long, very intimidating version. I used her recipe in 1987 and loved it but always thought it was a bit long and winding. Between Julia’s, Mimi Thorisson and Jody Williams I came up with my own version. One difference between the classic cassoulet technique and mine is I use one pot. Rather than using every pot in my kitchen, I stream lined the process without I feel detracting from the final dish. No disrespect intended.
Although our grocery selection in Atlantic Canada is much better today than it was four decades ago, duck leg confit can still be a challenge. If I see it in the frozen section of the meat department at the supermarket, I grab it whether I need it right away or not. I like knowing I have some at the ready.
If you’re going to try this recipe, give yourself a few days. The beans need to soak over night before you can even begin. Once the beans are cooked the flavour improves from a night in the fridge. It may seem daunting but I promise you will love the result. Also, I roasted a goose at Christmas and saved the rendered fat. If you can’t find duck or goose fat substitute extra virgin olive oil.
- 1/4 cup goose or duck fat
- 1 1/2 lbs pork back ribs, separated into 2 rib sections
- 6 fresh garlic sausages
- 1/2 lb fresh pork belly, cut into thick lardons
- 1 lb pork shoulder, cut into bite sized cubes
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and diced
- 8 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
- 1 carrot, peeled and diced
- 1 celery stalk, diced
- 1 – 28 oz can of diced plum tomatoes in puree
- 1/2 teaspoon dried ground thyme
- 1/4 teaspoon chili powder
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 cup dry white vermouth
- 1 lb dried white beans, covered with water and soaked over night then drained just before using
- 6 legs Duck Confit
- 4 cups coarse fresh breadcrumbs
- 4 tablespoons duck or goose fat
- Place a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat and add goose or duck fat.
- When the fat has melted, add pork belly lardons and pork shoulder cubes. Season heavily with sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- Brown well on all sides then remove to a platter.
- Add pork back rib sections and brown well on all sides. Season heavily with sea salt and freshly ground pepper Adjust heat to keep the meat from burning. Your want a nicely browned pot with lots of crispy bits bot a scorched pot.
- When ribs are nicely browned remove to a platter then add sausages. Brown on all sides. When well browned, remove to a platter.
- Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, bay leaves, ground thyme and chili powder. Saute, stirring often until vegetables are really soft. It should take about 12 minutes.
- When the vegetables are soft, add the dry vermouth to deglaze the bottom of the pot. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up all the brown bits from the pot’s bottom.
- Add the drained beans and diced tomatoes with puree. Stir well.
- Return the pork belly lardons and cubes pork shoulder to the pot and mix well.
- Lay the sausages on top of the bean mixture then gently push them under the beans.
- Add enough water to just cover the beans and sausage.
- Lay the pork back rib sections on top of the beans and again gently push them into the mixture. They will not be completely submerged.
- Preheat oven to 325*F. As the oven is preheating, bring the mixture to a soft boil.
- When oven is at temperature, cover pot and place on bottom rack until beans are soft. Approximately 3 hours. The age of your beans will determine the cook time.
- Check your beans at 2 hours so that you can gauge how much more time you will need. The beans should be quite soft.
- Once the beans have arrived at the desired texture, remove casserole from oven and cool on a cooling rack. Place completely cooled casserole in the fridge until ready to serve.
- Preheat oven to 400*F
- Remove casserole from fridge and place on medium low heat until mixture softens and starts bubble slightly.
- Remove pork back ribs to separate casserole and add 3 tablespoons of water. Cover and set aside.
- If liquid has fallen below the bean mixture top up with a little chicken stock. You want the liquid just at bean level. Turn heat off from under beans.
- Place a large cast iron skillet over medium high heat and melt 2 tablespoons of duck or goose fat.
- When fat has melted add half of the bread crumbs. Cook until lightly toasted. Sprinkle on top of casserole.
- Repeat with remaining ingredients then sprinkle on the casserole covering the entire surface.
- Place casserole, uncovered in preheated oven for 20 minutes. The first crust will have formed. Tap it gently with a spoon to break it a little. Spoon some of the cooking liquid over the crust. Reduce oven temperature to 350*F and bake 20 minutes more. Reduce oven to 325*% for an additional 10 minutes. The crust should be well formed. Remove casserole from oven on to the stove over very low heat.
- Increase oven to 400*F. Follow the manufacturer’s recipe for the duck legs confit.. The instructions are pretty universal. The duck should take 20 minutes on a parchment lined cookie sheet, skin side up.
- Serve the cassoulet with each serving topped with a pork rib section, a garlic sausage and a duck leg.
- A nice dry white or bold red wine and some crusty bread with salty butter is all you need to serve this wonderful winter meal.
THE LOVE: Time. You will need a few days to pull this off but it is so worth it!
Thanks for reading.