First off, the cassoulet was a big success. After some unfounded anxiety about how to assemble it — which in the end doesn’t really matter — it all came together and made for a terrific meal. It was filling, rich, meaty, beany, and really delicious. There are a few things I’ll do a little differently next time, sure (more duck, more tomato, a little more liquid), but those were just minor details, I think. The basic gist was spot on.
Beans. First, I cooked the flageolet beans for two hours with the joint from the pork shoulder that I used for the garlic sausage. (I brined that overnight in a ziploc bag with the basic salt box cure, which gave it a nice hammy flavor.) I also threw a large slice of pork rind from the shoulder into the beans, along with a quartered onion, a few chopped carrots and a bay leaf. These simmered on the stove for 2 hours until tender, then I drained them and reserved the liquid.
Browning. I warmed up the confit in a hot water bath to release the legs from the fat, deboned them, and crisped them up in a hot saute pan. I cut each thigh in half, and roughly chopped the leg meat. Here I wished I had some more duck. As there were only three of eating the cassoulet, I wasn’t too worried about running out of meat, but I would like more of duck in there for next time. I also browned the sausages in duck fat and set them aside.
Liquid. After the browning phase, I added a tablespoon of tomato paste to the hot pan (and I’d use 2-3 next time). Then threw in a chopped onion to soften, and then added 2 cups of duck stock. Chicken stock would work fine. I used this along with a cup or so of the reserved bean liquid, which just about gelled in the fridge.
Assembly. No reason to be fussy. Beans, meat, beans, meat, beans, liquid to fill. Done. For some reason I thought the order would be important, but as this starts life in the oven at a stage closer to chili than lasagna, it really makes no big difference. If you want more sausage when you’re serving it, then you dig deeper. If you’re hankering for a piece of duck, you just dig around in the pot until you get a piece of duck.
Cooking. The day before serving, (Christmas Eve Eve, in this case), pile it all into the dutch oven, then add liquid just to cover the final layer of beans. 350 degrees for an hour, and then turned down to 250 for another hour, all uncovered. Let cool to room temp and then cover and refrigerate overnight. Day of serving: 350 for an hour, add some reserved bean-cooking liquid if needed, then top with bread crumbs, diced garlic, and chopped parsley, and brown in the oven for another 30 minutes. Here I had a small stroke of brilliance, and I thought to add in some of the duck cracklings left over from cooking the original duck (source of the fat, stock, and legs). I pulsed the cracklings in the food processor along with the bread crumbs and garlic and parsley, and it made the whole topping that much better. Why don’t other recipes tell you to do this? You should do this.
Recipe. My overall proportions for Christmas Eve Cassoulet:
- 2 legs of duck confit (I will use at least 4 next time)
- 4-6 garlic sausages, browned and cut in half
- 1-2 lbs of cured and slow roasted pork belly
- 3 cups flageolet beans, dry — I couldn’t find Tarbais beans — soaked overnight
- 3 medium carrots, chopped; 1 bay leaf
- 1 onion quartered, 1 onion chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- ham hock, pork knuckle, pig skin, or pig’s foot if you’ve got one
- 1 T of tomato paste (will use 2-3 T next time)
- 2 c duck stock (or chicken stock)
- 1-2 c reserved liquid from cooking beans
- 1 c bread crumbs, 3 cloves garlic, handful of parsley, 1/2 c duck skin cracklings
- duck fat as needed for sauteing
What I learned:
- More duck. More tomato. A little more liquid: I was originally worried about it being too soupy, so I didn’t add any liquid after the first hour on the second day. But it thickened up significantly in that last 30-40 minutes of browning the bread crumbs, and it would have been nice if it was a little more saucy.
- Overall flavor: great. Duck confit, great, and actually pretty easy. Don’t know why I’ve never done this before. Will do it more often now. Ruhlman says you can confit with olive oil with very good results, and I might consider this until I get a tub of duck fat. But the duck fat tied everything together, and it was so lip-smacking good that it’ll be hard to do without it.
- As the beans were cooking, I wrapped the slabs of pork belly in foil and cooked them for 2 hours at about 210 degrees with a little water. This softened it up quite a bit and kept the large chunks from being too tough in the final dish. I recommend some kind of slow cooking before you add it to the final stew. The big chunks of belly were a highlight, as were the halved pieces of garlic sausage.
Final verdict. This meal took a ton of time to make, even when spread out over a week (as Bourdain said), but it doesn’t have to be so hard. The most time consuming piece for me was poring through cookbooks trying to figure out which recipe to follow. Now that I know what I liked, the next time through will go much quicker. After reading recipes, the next longest step was making the sausage. You could skip this step and just buy some, but as I’m going to make sausage every once in a while anyway (and because I now happily have a few extra pounds of garlic sausage stashed away in the freezer), it’s definitely worth it. I’d also be willing to try this with a number of variations, substituting in ribs, pork shoulder, slab bacon, or ham (which many recipes include anyway). Takeaway point: this is like French pork and beans, and it’s hard to screw up.
The day after: My Million Dollar Idea. I’m sure someone has thought of this before, because it makes so much sense. But I’ve never had leftover cassoulet sitting around in the fridge before, so it had never occurred to me to do. But I had some today as Cassoulet Breakfast Hash, and it was really brilliant. Scooped right out of the Tupperware into a hot pan (w/ olive oil or duck fat) until a golden brown crust forms, it had all the great qualities of Thanksgiving stuffing, plus the added benefits of duck, sausage, and hunks of bacon. Perfect with two fried eggs on top, diner style. I’ll be making this again!