My high school French teacher left a comment on a recent post asking for a picture of a cassoulet if I happened to stumble across one in my travels. While it’s funny that she’s still giving me homework after over 25 years, it was also lucky; it gave me an excuse to ask Kate to make cassoulet so I could see the whole process up close. So she did. She has made it hundreds of times, and this version represents her easy three to four hour distillation of the essential process. You can read her complete recipe here.
Many recipes for cassoulet begin by saying that it takes three days to make properly, which Kate thinks is nonsense. Sure, if you need to begin by making duck confit, then that’s true, but the nature of the Gascon larder is that there are always various jars of confit in there for just such an occasion. So if you make confit as part of your regular or even occasional routine, save some to make cassoulet. The rest of the process is really not complicated at all.
I already recounted our trip to the market to get all we needed, so you know that we returned well-equipped to Camont. Bacon was delighted to see us, especially because Kate had bought a pig’s ear for him from Dominique. After sitting most obediently to beg for it, he ran outside to have some alone time with the ear.
Prep begins very simply with putting the beans in water (without salt, which slows their cooking) and bringing it to a boil, then reducing the heat a bit to cook them. After the beans become just tender–about an hour or so–she adds tied rolls of pig skin, a hunk of ventrèche, cloves of garlic, some chopped carrots, an onion stuck with a clove, peppercorns, and a couple of bouquets garni. She also adds more water so that the beans remain covered.
The beans add starch to the water and the skin and meat provide gelatin. This beany, meaty stock is essential, and she scoffs at recipes that call for throwing out the bean cooking water.
While this continued to simmer for another hour, she had me grill the Saucisses de Toulouse, the andouille, and some ribs over the fire and then chop them into largish pieces. If they’re too small, they can break apart during cooking.
She removed the skin and belly and cut them up too, chopping the skin into bean-sized bits to add extra texture to the finished dish. The bouquets garnis were tossed.
Now, the final stage: layering the cooked beans with all of the various meats in her biggest cassole. The heavy stoneware pot is ideal because it holds heat and the shape allows for the right balance between moisture retention and evaporation during the slow oven cooking. Kate wants everyone to know that cassoulet is all about the beans; the meats are garnish. Too much meat, and the beans don’t form the dense and unctuous matrix that defines the dish. If the beans are too small, they disintegrate, so navy beans are not a good choice. Tarbais are good, as are lingots, runner cannelini or even flageolets. What matters is that they’re large and can handle a long cooking without turning to mush.
So beans, meat, beans, meat, and so on go in until all is used up. She arranges everything evenly so that every spoonful of the finished cassoulet will have some meaty treat in it, while emphasizing that bread crumbs are spurious; the beans make the crust. Breadcrumbs may, however, be used to re-crustify leftover cassoulet that is being reheated in the oven. Kate likes to stick the onion back in the middle so it gets all caramelized and fabulous on top.
For the final cooking, after spreading the last of the beans around on top, the cassole goes in the oven. Kate says that depending on the time involved, one can make the oven hotter, but that lower and slower is better. An hour is minimum, but keep in mind that the sausages and ribs were barely cooked, so two or three really let everything get tender and snuggly. We were lucky, since we began this in the evening and Kate fired up the oven again in the morning to give it another couple of hours so it would be perfect when I showed up, camera in hand, for the awesomely styled money shots (bleu de Lectoure dish towel!) on her lovely old table outside the back door.
Then she spooned the steaming, fragrant gorgeousness into two containers so we could eat it for lunch on the TGV to Paris. And she even threw a half bottle of Bordeaux in the bag as well. We got some longing glances from the other people in the car.