by Emerson Beyer
As we settle into the long, cold, dark days that come with the final slog through winter, we — your pals from The Awl and The Hairpin — will be bringing you some of our favorite casserole recipes (and crockery recommendations). But these won’t be just any old casseroles! No, no, that won’t do at all. These are fancy casseroles — or at least, not-gross ones.
Cassoulet is not the most prepossessing dish. To serve a guest a bowl of it is to serve a gloopy brown mess. It’s also mostly beans, hardly renowned as addictive. Yet when word got out recently that I’d be making cassoulet, a number of friends suddenly, and embarrassingly, became free for dinner. What powerful spell does this homely casserole cast? Mark Bittman and Aleksandra Crapanzano have recently written about the thrall of cassoulet, their advice and recipes appearing when the snow and wind and sleet have everybody wanting their share of the world’s most comforting comfort food. (It is to the Times credit that they somehow managed to photograph cassoulet in a way that makes it glow; I assume they used the same sort of magical soft focus that Doris Day insisted on in her later contracts.)
Most cassoulet recipes overplay how complicated it is to make. Julia Child’s recipe includes a section called “The Order of Battle.” Anthony Bourdain’s recipe is organized by days: One, Two and Three. Maybe this mystification is an attempt to deal with the improbable transformation of such humble ingredients into so irresistible a meal. Alchemy! The reality is that you can spend a snowy Sunday making a fairly authentic cassoulet without shamanistic instructions, and I’ve even got a way you can make cassoulet (less authentic but still delicious) on a weeknight.
I’m offering you two approaches here, built on the same method. The “weekend” way, which serves at least 10, is itself a speeded-up, simplified take on traditional cassoulet, but it will require a leisurely day’s work — a half hour of prep work followed by a bit more than four hours of mostly passive cooking. It’s compatible with doing the laundry. The “weekday” version is smaller (dinner for six) and a lot faster, but if you are getting home from work at 6:00 and needing to feed a family before bedtime, you’ll end up hating me. Consider it when you have out-of-town guests and want to spend the day hosting them instead of cooking for them. Expect to spend a little more than two hours on it.
Here is the fundamental method. There are just five leisurely steps, and none of them will push the limits of your culinary skill.
• Soak the beans
• Cook the beans
• Brown and braise the meat (Steps 2 and 3 can be done simultaneously)
• Prepare the crust
• Assemble and bake
If you have kitchen sense, you can work from those simple instructions alone. Everything below is merely a tip.
Dried white beans come in countless varieties and a wide range of prices. My advice in bean selection is: splurge. Fancier heirloom beans with French names are delicious. And, you get a lot of food for your buck — seriously, these are beans, not crocodile loafers — we’re talking small change.
The bulk aisle of our Whole Foods now reliably stocks Flageolets, very pretty, very pale green-hued beans that hold their shape without that fibrous, scrubby quality you can get in lima beans. These cost about $3 per pound (as compared to Navy and Northern beans that come in under $1 and are good though not magnificent). Dried beans will double in weight and triple in volume over the course of preparation. 1–1/2 pounds of dried beans will make enough cassoulet for 10–12 individual meals.
To use dried beans you probably already know you have to soak them overnight. Soak them in a big, covered pot with at least twice as much cold water (by volume) as beans. This means you can’t decide to make cassoulet the same day you want to serve it (except of course you can — keep scrolling). I have found that “fast soaking” methods don’t yield good results. But, if you’re someone who uses a lot of beans, soak several pounds at once, divide one-pound portions into zipper bags, and keep them in the freezer. In general, you can not only pre-soak but fully cook beans to keep in the freezer, but for cassoulet, we want to cook the beans a special way.
To make beans into the bewitchingly delicious base for this dish, you will need to simmer them with herbs, garlic and pig skin. For the herbs, you want to use a big, branchy stem of parsley, a similarly bushy stem of thyme, and a couple of bay leaves. Toss into the pot three or four unpeeled cloves of garlic. Add a few black peppercorns and cloves if you feel confident about your ability to fish them out later. For the pig skin, you can use a half-pound piece of pork belly, side meat, or pork rind. You can use fresh, cured, or smoked pork, keeping in mind this choice will affect the resulting flavor of your cassoulet, but there’s nothing wrong with that — just don’t add extra salt to the pot if your meat is already salty.
Simmer the beans for an hour and a half. Do not overcook them, and don’t worry if they remain a little bit crunch, because they are going to get cooked yet again.
Cassoulet is a terrific way to deliver special meats that may otherwise be too expensive for a big meal. In my not-indisputable opinion, cassoulet should have the trifecta of lamb, duck and pork. It does not matter the form in which these meats are procured, but my rule of thumb is that one should be a sausage and the other two should have bones in them. So, for example, you might have pork ribs, lamb shanks, and duck sausage. Or you might have pork sausage, lamb chops, and duck legs. Get a pound-and-a-half of the cheapest of these, and one pound each of the other two. While you’re at the meat counter, get a pound of sliced bacon.
Once you’ve got the beans simmering, take your non-sausage meats out of the refrigerator, generously cover them in fine salt and pepper, and leave them out (covered, of course) at room temperature while you prepare to cook them.
Start heating your Dutch oven on the stove top. Cassoulet is traditionally cooked in a clay pot, but my method calls for iron, enameled or not, mostly as a way to minimize equipment and mess. Cut up three or four slices of bacon and begin rendering in the pot over medium-low heat. Take it slow so you don’t burn the grease.
Prepare two cups of nice brown stock. I happened to have some duck stock in the freezer. There are lots of fancy bouillon products at the grocery store these days so there’s no reason (except maybe budget) that you can’t use duck, lamb, or veal stock. Beef stock would yield acceptable results, but why miss the opportunity to make this lavish dish more special?
When the bacon is nice and crunchy and has given up all the fat it has to give, remove the bits and begin browning the meats one at a time, starting with the fattest so that you add even more grease to the pot. Get them nice and brown on all sides. Cut the sausage into coins and brown it last. Try to break the bones with a cleaver, mallet, or strong knife.
Replace the meat except the sausage into the pot, pour in the stock, a can of crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce and half a bottle of dry wine (ideally something cheap from southwest France), more thyme, some rosemary if you have it lying around, a couple of bay leaves and garlic cloves, and put the pot uncovered into a 325-degree oven. Let it braise for an hour and a half.
While the meat is braising in the oven, the beans will finish simmering. Pull out the pork skin, the bay leaves and cloves, and the parsley and thyme stems if they are still intact. Using a mesh strainer, save the broth.
When the meat has finished braising, take the pot out of the oven and the meat out of the pot. Using that mesh strainer, reserve the braising liquid. Cut or pull the meat off the bones, and discard the bones.
Without a topping of herbed bread crumbs, cassoulet would be intolerably, homogenously mushy. Many a great casserole has a crunchy or caramelized topcoat — indeed, the word gratin refers to the grated stuff (e.g., bread or cheese) used to make this important finishing touch.
You know I’m frugal/neurotic enough to save the heels from every loaf, but you can always simply put some fresh bread in the toaster to make it “stale.” Six or eight slices of stale bread should be enough to make 1–1/2 to 2 cups of crumbs. Into the food processor add a handful of parsley leaves, four or five peeled cloves of garlic, and two or three tablespoons of olive oil. Be generous with the olive oil, which will make this topping nice and crusty without letting it burn. Pulse this all together until everything is crumb-sized and well combined.
Heat the oven to 375. Cut up three or four more slices of bacon and cook them in the pot over medium heat (you can speed things up this time, or even omit this extra bacon — and then stop being my friend). When that’s finished, put the beans and the meats into the pot, and add all the braising liquid. If the beans and meats aren’t completely drowned in liquid, add some of the bean broth — you want this to have a stew-like ratio of solids to liquids. Cover the whole mess with a nice thick layer of bread crumbs and bake at 375 for 20 minutes, then 325 for another 90 minutes. You probably want to check every half hour that the top isn’t burning, but don’t take it out of the oven until the beans have absorbed all the liquid.
Cassoulet is so traditional that it makes good sense to drink a wine from the same neighborhood. The wines of the Languedoc that combine Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre are ideal. There are also a few small areas in southwest France, such as Cabardès, that produce wines combining those Mediterranean grapes with Atlantic grapes like Merlot. These are unusual enough to offer an extra point of conversation with your guests, and you will certainly be sharing this huge, hearty meal.
The Somewhat Faster Version
Let me be clear: you can make this on a weeknight, but it would be good to ensure that you don’t have any important early meetings, as the “faster” version is still a bit slow. I will also note that this version is perfectly succulent, but don’t taste it alongside the “authentic” version (as I did this weekend) or you’ll too readily notice its shortcomings. My point is just that you’ll get a good result for the amount of effort required.
Instead of dried beans, we can save time by using four cans of white beans, which is enough for five or six individual meals. You’ll also need a little less meat than in the recipe above. You could use a pound of pork sausage along with a single lamb chop and a small duck breast, keeping the ratios about the same as above but you don’t want bones in this version. Cut the meat into cubes, apply generous amounts of salt and pepper, and leave it at room temperature while you prepare everything else.
Again you’ll need three or four slices of bacon to start, and who can argue with that? Cut them up into bits and begin rendering them over medium-low heat in a pan. When they’re crunchy and you have plenty of fat, remove the bacon and use the fat to brown the other meats, one at a time, sausage last.
Set aside the meat and add six coarsely chopped shallots. Just cook these for a few minutes to soften them — you don’t want to brown them. Add a nice bushy stem of thyme and a cup of inexpensive dry wine and turn the heat up to medium-high. Simmer until the wine is almost entirely gone and absorbed into the shallots.
Add to the pan a couple of bay leaves and a handful of chopped parsley leaves. Open the cans and rinse the beans well, then add them to the pan along with the meat and a generous pinch of salt. Add a cup of nice dark stock, another cup of the cheap wine, and a generous squeeze of tomato paste. If the liquid doesn’t cover the beans, add more wine.
Prepare the bread crumb topping as above, or save time by using packaged bread crumbs and minced garlic from the jar. Remember to use plenty of olive oil.
Put this in a 375-degree oven. After 20 minutes, lower the heat to 325. It will probably take an hour and a half in total, but keep an eye on things, as you can eat it as soon as topping is nice and brown and the liquid is absorbed by the beans — maybe you can get to bed at a reasonable hour after all.
If this seems like a lot of effort, keep in mind that the leftovers reheat very well. To do that, you will want to put a puddle of stock or broth in the baking dish under the cassoulet. Bake it, covered, for a half hour at 325. If you finished off the wine already, a nice blonde ale would do fine.
K. Emerson Beyer, environmentalist and gadabout, lives in Durham, N.C. and tweets as @patebrisee.