Cassoulet is a stew that captures the rustic flavors of southwestern France like no other. It’s also a perfect example of a peasant dish whose preparation is sometimes taken to ridiculously convoluted extremes. At least it can seem so to the harried modern cook. It took me three days to finish our pot of cassoulet, following a recipe by Paula Wolfert I found on the internet while staying with our friend Bob in a village outside Perpignan. But that was largely because we were seldom around the house long enough for me to complete more than a couple of the recipe’s 14 steps. We were too busy being tourists.
Comprised of variety meats, beans and aromatics, cassoulet is perfectly suited to throwing a bunch of leftovers in the pot. Bob was already in the process of making a chicken stock that I used for the broth. He also had a bag of beans. From there, it was simply a matter of driving around to three different butchers in the area to find the right meats (pork shoulder, pork belly, pork tail, dried ham) and an enormous can of duck confit. Lamb or mouton would also be a fine addition.
Various locales lay claim to the original cassoulet. I’m not going to attempt to sort that out, because Wolfert has already written extensively about it in her book, The Cooking of Southwest France. Suffice to say that cassoulet does not suffer from a little variation and even improvisation. It is, after all, a stew.
While Bob helped prep the ingredients, I started browning the meat, cut into cubes, in duck fat at the bottom of one of our new Le Creuset pots. Traditionally, cassoulet is cooked in a ceramic vessel called a cassoule, giving the dish its name.
After removing the meats, I sauteed the aromatics. Simple enough.
The meats then go back into the pot, along with the beans, chicken stock, pork tail (or ham hocks), celery, bay leaf, rosemary, thyme and a whole head of garlic. After this has cooked and chilled in the refrigerator overnight, you remove things like the pork tail and pick all the meat off the bones. The garlic is squeezed out of its skins one clove at a time (thanks, Bob!) and stirred back into the pot.
Our next project was finding a grocery store that stocked duck confit. This is a traditional product of the region. Leg and thigh quarters are first cooked, then preserved in a huge quantity of duck fat. Cassoulet would hardly be cassoulet without it. (If your local grocer doesn’t carry it, look for it online.) To finish the dish, we browned the confit in a skillet greased with duck fat spooned out of the can, then picked the meat off the bones and buried it deep in the stew.
At this point you will add local sausages (we used merguez), also browned in the skillet and buried just below the surface of the stew. Dust the stew with fresh bread crumbs before placing back in the oven. Serve hot with a hearty red wine.