Cassoulet in all of its Glory

Now that we’re inching towards colder nights, it’s a good idea to plan ahead and learn how to make this amazing dish. My earliest memory of cassoulet was when one the chefs in the family hotel declared that there was a restaurant somewhere in the Languedoc region which had been simmering this particular dish since the 1789 revolution, perhaps even before that. At the time I thought it a tall tale but as an impressionable boy of ten I gave the chef the benefit of the doubt. Several years later, I visited the celebrated Tour D’Argent in Paris and on the menu there was a description of a cassoulet which had been on the stove for the best part of a hundred years. When I questioned the maitre D’, he explained the process of preparing it: it is traditional to deglaze the pot from the previous cassoulet in order to give a base for the next one. It made sense.

The history of this particular dish is fascinating. I have read quite a few accounts, some quite far-fetched and some plain silly but I suppose I should include, for folklore sake, the following:

One legend places the birth of cassoulet during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355. The besieged townspeople gathered the remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a large cauldron.

Needless to say that the besieged town would have had mostly beans to contribute. Whatever meat was found was added to give strength to the exhausted troops (that’s my interpretation). Julia Child, that great and wise lady, suggested that cassoulet may have originated in North Africa via the traditional fava and mutton stews of the Arabs. I tend to agree with her as the Moors were indeed in the vicinity (beans stews were prevalent further south in Muslim Spain around the twelfth century.)

All “true” cassoulets are made in the Languedoc region with white beans (haricots blancs or lingots though the haricot Tarbais seems to be the traditional bean used in most instances, see pic above) and braised meats such as mutton, duck, goose and pork among others. There are numerous regional variations, the best-known being the cassoulet from Castelnaudary (see story above), which is the self-proclaimed “Capital of Cassoulet.” It is made with duck confit instead of mutton and served in an earthenware dish.

The other close contenders are Toulouse, and nearby Carcassonne. In the Toulouse version the main attractions are pork, mutton and lashings of their famous Toulouse sausage. The Carcassonne version has more mutton and occasionally replaces the duck with partridge.

Prosper Montagné of Larousse Gastronomique decreed in 1929 that “God the father is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary, God the Son that of Carcassonne, and the Holy Spirit that of Toulouse.”

This basic combination of beans, mutton, pork and sausage can be substituted with lamb or even chicken. Indeed the variation in meat content may be as regional as the original recipe was.

To me, the main constituent of the cassoulet is the bean. Prepared carefully it should simply melt in the mouth. Which is why the Tarbais bean (though pricey, but must be used for the real McCoy) is the Rolls Royce of its kind. It must be harvested by hand and this insures the finest quality. Other beans noted for cassoulet include the lingot de Lavelanet or the haricot beans of Mazères, Pamiers, or Cazères (all of which can be found in the Languedoc region, and with the Google, online.) Cannelini beans can also be used but it won’t be the “real thing” though eminently suitable for the vegetarian version whose recipe appears below.

But first, you should know where the humble haricot bean comes from:

The Tarbais Haricot: a native of the New World. Bibliographical research has identified the ancestor of corn in Mexico, where it was grown by the Aztecs and already associated with the haricot and the pumpkin. The Mexicans called the reddish, kidney-shaped seed “ayacolt”, the origin of our word “haricot”. One of the first products imported from South America in the 16th century, the haricot arrived in Europe in the hold of Christopher Columbus’s ship. An interesting note is that when Catherine de Medici, the future wife of Henry II of France, disembarked at Marseilles in 1553, she produced from her trousseau a bag of “fagioli”, the beans later known as “haricots”.

The following recipe is what I call the tradcass, short for traditional cassoulet. I’ve simplified and deconstructed the original recipe for the sake of time. Ordinarily, a typical cassoulet would take a whole day of preparation (making duck confit & a hearty stock, preparing the beans, making fresh breadcrumbs, acquiring and prepping all kinds of meat cuts etc..) followed by a whole day of cooking. It’s not a modern day dish by any means so my version takes only 3 hours or so (and plenty time in between for bouts of drinking) and it is cooked in two phases, beans first and beans and meat secondly, and lastly, 5 minutes under the grill for the crumb coating. I have read that some versions require the breaking of the crumb coating a number of times, at least 7, to achieve a perfect crust. Baloney to that! I personally think that the crumb coating is a modern iteration, worked out by local chefs wanting to make cassoulet a little more appetizing.

Since it is a dish best eaten in great company, I’ll assume it would be cooked for at least 10 persons. Make sure you rinse and soak 2 pounds of beans overnight (great as leftovers in any case, me, I would cook 3 pounds), and change the water often (3 to 4 times is good). When swollen, rinse for a few minutes under a cold tap. When the whole thing is done I would serve it in individual earthenware casserole, with a nice crumb coating on top (because, after all, I am modern!) If you don’t have that many dishes on hand, use large soup bowls. Or borrow.

For 10 people

10 confit duck legs (you can buy these from a good deli), 10 pieces of Toulouse sausages (same), 1 pound of speck (uncut smoked bacon with rind), a tin of duck fat (very important, for the taste), 2 large onions studded with a few cloves, 4 biggish carrots, 2 large turnips, 6 bay leaves, 4 soupspoons of tomato paste, a few sprigs of thyme, 1 pound of freshly baked breadcrumbs**, salt & pepper to taste.

Place in a large (preferably cast-iron) pot the beans, the roughly cut bacon, carrots (peeled and cut into thick slices), turnip (peeled and cut into thick pieces), and the whole onions. Cover with cold water level. Bring to a boil and simmer for an hour. Add salt halfway through cooking.
Remove beans from heat. Remove the thyme, onion, carrot and turnip (which can be used for a soup stock later). Adjust seasoning and keep warm. Have a glass of wine, you are a deserving chef for going into that much trouble!

Now that the beans are cooked, more or less, we assemble the whole thing.

Preset your oven at 260 Celsius (500 Fahrenheit). At the bottom of a large baking dish, rub the bottom with a clove of garlic or 2, pour half the duck fat which you would have warmed up in a pan mixed with the tomato paste. Cover with a layer of beans, then the duck confit, then again a layer of beans and place the sausages. Finish with the remaining beans. Sprinkle with half of the bread crumbs and pour the other half of duck fat & tomato paste on top. Place in oven for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and put it into individual serving dishes, cover each with the remaining breadcrumbs and place under the broiler or grill for 5 minutes or until nice and brown.

**: I like to make my own breadcrumbs and nothing is easier that that. Use a whole loaf of whole meal bread or a country loaf, crust and all, tear it into chunks, and place them into a baking dish. Add a little olive oil, a pinch of dried garlic and a pinch of dried parsley, and bake for 10 minutes or until crispy. Then use your blender or Magimix.

This will be a rich dish and I suggest a long walk after eating this.

Vegetarian cassoulet: this is an even quicker version and a great one to boot. Use Cannelini beans (soaked overnight), 2 large eggplants, cut into big chunks, 2 large fennel bulbs, cut into chunks as well, 6 garlic cloves, peeled and minced, 2 large onions, peeled and chopped roughly, 4 large carrots, peeled and cut into big strips, 2 sprigs of celery, cut into pieces, 4 bay leaves, half a pint of dry white wine, 1 pound of wild mushrooms: I leave it to your imagination (Oyster mushrooms, Shiitake, Morels, Cèpes, it’s all good, you can use the dried kind as well as long as you soak them before use), 1 pound of smoked tofu or Tempeh if you can find it, and the piece de resistance, a stock made with vegetable trimmings and smoked tomatoes. Why smoked tomatoes? It will add un certain je ne sais quoi to your cassoulet and you will become the envy of your circle of friends. All you need to do is to purchase half a dozen of them and add them to your simmering stock.

First you cook the beans in plenty of salted water. This should take at least 1 hour or until cooked thoroughly. Note that you can play with this dish and add lentils or garbanzo beans if you wish. Drain when cooked and set aside.

Heat some olive oil in a large stockpot (preferably an ovenproof one like a le creuset stockpot) over low heat and add onions, garlic and fennel. Cook, stirring frequently or till browned. Then add the carrots, celery, eggplant, mushrooms, 4 soupspoons of tomato puree, bay leaves, white wine, and 2 pints of the smoked tomato stock. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer gently for about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The stock should be fairly reduced and almost syrupy.

Preheat your oven to 260 Celsius (500 Fahrenheit). Place the beans on top of the pot, push down with your hands, cover with a thick layer of breadcrumbs – as shown above – and place into oven for a further 20 minutes, tops. You now have a great veg cassoulet on your hands! Another trick is to add sweet potatoes to that dish.

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