Cassoulet (Or Exotic Comfort Food With Maximum Fanfare & Minimal Fuss)

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Christmas dinner at Chez Gekiuma is usually a quiet affair with the hubby (whenever he can pry himself away from work) and me plus or minus the occasional orphaned guest(s). But even if it wasn’t a cozy, mellow affair, cassoulet would be at the top of my list of entrées. Why? Despite the exotic ingredients, it’s fairly easy if time-intensive to prepare but the creamy delectable beans and savory garlicky duck and sausage confirm that it was all worth the effort. And seriously, the majority of the “effort” is idle time spent reading and socializing quietly waiting while things simmer or bake. While in the US cassoulet has been elevated into the realm of shi-shi French restaurants with $20-40 price tags, this rustic dish was originally peasant fare with regional variations dependent on local ingredients. Duck confit, pork shoulder, and sausage fan? You sir, must be a resident of Castelnaudary. Must have mutton? Hello there, Carcassonne. Crispety breadcrumb crust? Just mosey 60 miles southeast to Toulouse. This humble, protein-rich dish steeped in literally centuries of Gallic tradition is emblematic of how food unifies people through shared cultural heritage (cuz, yes there’s even a Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet to help keep cassoulet cassoulet and not duck confit chana masala ;)) Yet despite all this guidance and regulation is also a stage to highlight regional flavors and cater to individual preferences.

I suspect some of the reason why cassoulet commands such steep prices is that the ingredients and techniques reflect how truly venerable this dish is, evoking a time when lard was used not only for cooking but also as a method of food preservation. Don’t get me wrong. I lurrve my many modern conveniences but before there was the “slow food movement” there was simply the slow movement of life. Luckily for me I live walking distance to 2 artisanal butchers that make all the ingredients you need for cassoulet and then some. Ironically, even with buying the duck confit, garlic sausage, and pancetta instead of apprenticing for 2 years doing it myself, this entire meal of 6-8 servings (including all the other ingredients) ended up costing as much as 1 serving at a restaurant ~$30. As for the inclusion of carrots, celery, and parsnips, I must cry mea culpa. While I’ve made this more faithfully in the past to be a carnivore’s delight, I’ve pared down the fat content, whittled down the amount of meat, taken the extra 20 minutes to roast the garlic for the added flavor as this is a day-long affair anyway, and snuck in some stewy veggies cuz too much fat makes it taste too gamey for me. Protein and fat overload results in food coma-esque snoring at the dining table and I like the slight sweetness and lightness the veggies add as well as all those healthy nutrients. Actually, I’ve always thought that cassoulet was an unusual “peasant” dish since it was so meat intensive cuz back in the 16th century meat was hard to come by cuz livestock were for working not filet mignon so my inexpert opinion is that veggies may have played a more prominent role in the past than in current presentations.

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So that’s why…
1) But wait I don’t live in hippy dippy Portlandia with an artisanal vegan corndog market every 500ft, my butcher’s name is Wayne and he believes that charcuterie is something that should be done behind closed doors under the auspices of marriage😉 You could hock a kidney and buy an entire cassoulet kit complete with a French clay cassole (the traditional clay cooking pot cassoulet is named after) for $110 at D’Artagnan cuz apparently the musketeers were highway robbers shrewd businessmen. Or you could make your own duck confit which actually doesn’t require a lot of skill or equipment, just patience. Here’s a very simplified recipe from Michael Ruhlman that solves the problem most home cooks have with making duck confit, where to get literally cups of duck fat per leg to cook and preserve those gams by substituting olive oil, a readily available and truthfully healthier fat.
2) While you’re cooking you may notice the copious amounts of fat and oil rolling off the ingredients in this dish and will have chest pain be tempted to skim off even more fat but as cassoulets go this is actually a pretty lean recipe. According to the cassoulet police Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet the beans should be tender but not mushy/falling apart (which is why it’s best to use dried beans for this dish) and you do need fat to give the beans and sauce that moist creamy tenderness that cassoulet is known for.

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Ingredients
1 lb dried flageolet or Great Northern beans, I prefer flageolet cuz they’re smoother/less grainy than Great Northern
1 head garlic, outer skin on
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
4 oz pancetta or bacon
1 large sweet onion (~2 c), diced
1 medium-sized carrot (~1/2 c), peeled and diced
1 medium-sized parsnip (~1/2 c), peeled, cored, and diced
2 legs duck confit (~1 lb)
1/2 lb French garlic sausage (~2 sausages)
2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/4 tsp dried thyme
4 sprigs fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
1 bay leaf
4 c low-salt chicken or vegetable stock
1 tsp duck fat (from the duck confit) or vegetable oil
1 c breadcrumbs, I prefer Japanese panko
2 tbsp shredded parmesan
1 1/2 tbsp fresh (1 1/2 tsp dried) parsley

Day 1:
The night before eating soak beans in 10-12 c cold water overnight (8-12 hours).

Day 2:
Preheat oven to 375F. Cut the top 1/2 inch off the garlic head and center on a 6-inch square of aluminum foil. Drizzle garlic with 1 tsp olive oil, wrap tightly with foil and roast till garlic is golden brown and very soft ~20-5 minutes. Turn off oven.

Drain and rinse beans.

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In a ~3-4 quart Dutch oven or oven-safe pot brown pancetta till fat is rendered ~10 minutes. Using a paper towel and tongs blot out fat till 1-2 tbsp remains. Sauté onion, carrot, and parsnip till tender and onion is translucent ~10 minutes. Place thyme, parsley, and bay leaf in a tea ball, herb infuser, or cheesecloth bag so you don’t have to go fishing for them later. Add the beans, herbs (bouquet garni), and stock–if the liquid is not ~1/2 inch above the beans add more stock or water. Squeeze roasted garlic out of skin (yup, just like a tube of toothpaste) and stir into beans. Cover and simmer till beans are tender but not mushy ~1 1/2 hours. Remove bouquet garni and discard.

Preheat oven to 375F.

While beans are simmering remove duck fat from duck legs (they will look smeary but that’s fine as the fat will help brown them). You can discard the duck fat or reserve for another use (like duck fat roasted potatoes or latkes!). In a large skillet brown duck legs on med-lo heat till meat is tender ~3-4 minutes per side. Set legs aside till cool enough to handle. While legs are cooling, using the same skillet and residual fat, brown garlic sausage. Set aside till cool enough to handle. Pull duck meat off bones and discard bones and skin. Cut sausage into 1/2-inch thick slices. Fold duck meat and sausage into beans. Bake till broth is absorbed by the beans ~1-1 1/2 hours.

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**While cassoulet is baking, in a large skillet heat 1 tsp duck fat or vegetable oil over medium heat till aromatic but not smoking. Add breadcrumbs and mix into fat. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley and parmesan and set aside. Once broth is absorbed by beans top cassoulet with seasoned breadcrumbs and bake till breadcrumbs are golden ~20 minutes. Makes 6-8 servings.

**If you’re eating gluten-free just skip the breadcrumbs. I’ve made cassoulet with and without breadcrumbs and it tastes delicious either way.

No nutritional info cuz it’s Christmas dinner🙂 Hope you had a warm, happy holiday with your loved ones.

About Cam

Enjoying the hippie life in Portlandia :)

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