The Cassoulet Reigns

The cassoulet is indisputably native to Castelnaudary. A certain Bringuier perfected the recipe, under rather indefinite circumstances. It is made with fresh pork, ham or pork knuckle, some sausage meat and fresh bacon rind. In Carcassonne, they add a shortened leg of mutton and, in the hunting season, a partridge. In Toulouse, in addition to these basic ingredients, they add some breast of pork, country sausage, mutton and especially preserved goose or duck (confit d’oie ou de canard). As for beans, they consider beans from Cazères and from Pamiers the best, not to mention the white beans from Alsace.”  Christian Guy, An Illustrated History of French Cuisine. New York: The Orion Press, 1962, 208.
I'm just wondering what the "indefinite circumstances" were in the above reference.  Someone looked in their larder (they had those then - no fridges) and there were some bits of pork, a confit nestled nicely in a little crock, sausages hanging from the ceiling, dried beans - lots of them, and said to themselves, voila?  Let's throw it all together. Probably a bunch of people were expected for dinner.  Reported by some to have been a communal meal in 14th century  Languedoc, France, where the townspeople prepared a big stew for soldiers on their way to war.

With that in mind, for Daring Cooks out there, our January 2011 Challenge comes from Jenni of The Gingered Whisk and Lisa from Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. They have challenged the Daring Cooks to learn how to make a confit and use it within the traditional French dish of Cassoulet. They have chosen a traditional recipe from Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman.

I have made duck confit several times and it ranks as one of my all time favorite foods, something I would like in my personal larder at all times. And a really authentic Cassoulet was on the list of dishes I've wanted to make, but just never found the right recipe, got around to it, looked for one, was lazy. Take your pick.  So, this was a welcome opportunity as well as a delicious challenge.

The first step was breaking down the duck, rendering its fat and making confit with the legs.  Actually, the first step is making a confit, but due to the fact that we cannot buy duck legs here, only whole ducks, the one step evolved into several.  That's  a good thing though.  The "extras" made a lovely dinner of Seared Duck breasts with Orange Olive Vinaigrette, some duck stock, which morphed further into a seriously good soup, more beautiful duck fat, and yet to come, Rillettes of confit and duck liver.  Ha, and so there.

The legs are curing in salt, pepper, fresh marjoram and garlic for 24 or so hours before the slow cooking confit process.  I made a half recipe as #1 - I did not want to deal with 2 ducks, and #2 - Several folks mentioned the recipe made a large amount anyway.

Here they are, covered with lovely duck fat.  Most of that was rendered from the last duck I did.  For some reason, this baby was not a really fatty duck.  It is ready to go into the oven at about 190F for 8 to 10 hours. I go by the old school, low temperature, long cook method.  I checked it with my digital temp. ray gun from time to time, with the oven set at just above "warm."

To me this is actually easier than some of the "easy" (merely faster) recipes I've read where you pierce the skin all over and cook it with foil, take it out turn it over, take off the foil, cook some more, etc.  Or, the like.  What could be simpler than sticking your duck in a pot, cover it with duck fat and let it cook slowly at a low temperature until nicely done, falling off the bone succulent?  8 to 10 hours later.  Just forget about it in there and do other stuff.  Just my opinion.  Admittedly you need to plan ahead on this recipe.  Now it rests in the fridge for however long you need it to.  If you're clever, you'll make lots and have it for other things all winter.  That is if you can buy just the legs or want to break down 4 or 5 ducks.

The next step, ( which can be up to several months later, or on the same night you do your duck cure in salt) is to soak your white beans (Broad, Great Northern, etc.) overnight.  The beans are supposed to be white.  I was unable to get the dried ones, so used what I had, plus some black beans, which kind of gray up the works.  But, what can you do?  The following day you cook the beans, fry up the pork bits (aside from sausages I just used bacon) assemble the Cassoulet components together, bake for 2 hours, then let it cool and rest until the finishing day, at which time you do a final bake, topped with breadcrumbs.  It is not all that difficult unless you attempt to do everything in an hour or two right before dinner.  I don't recommend that technique.  You would have to buy some canned duck confit, canned beans, a container of duck fat and skip the overnight mellowing of flavors.  The recipe and adaptations for...


Cassoulet by Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman (as featured on the Travel Channel’s “No Reservations”) Some of the notes in brackets are Claudia's.

Serves 4 - 8 (unless you're Lisa Michele) I halved it

Ingredients for Duck Confit

4 whole duck legs (leg and thigh), size does not matter
sea salt, for the overnight (at least 6-8 hours) dry rub (the amount varies depending on the size of your legs, so just know that you need to have enough on hand for a good coating.)
2 cups/480 ml/450 gm/16 oz duck fat (actually uses more like 3 - 4 cups)
a healthy pinch or grind of black pepper
4 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
1 garlic clove

Day One

1. Rub the duck legs fairly generously with sea salt (I added my garlic and  herbs at this point in order to keep the fat clearer during the next step), place in the shallow dish, cover with plastic and refrigerate overnight. At all times, keep your work area clean and your ingredients free of contamination - meaning don't allow any other food, like bread crumbs or scraps, to get into your duck, duck fat or confit, as they will make an otherwise nearly non-perishable preparation suddenly perishable.

2. Place the beans in the large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least 2 or 3 inches (50mm or 75mm) of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight. That was hard, right?  (Beans will double in size upon soaking, so use a big bowl!)

Day Two

1. Preheat the oven to moderately hot 375ºF/190ºC/gas mark 5.
2. Render (melt) the duck fat in the saucepan until clear.
3. After seasoning with the black pepper, place the duck legs in the clean, ovenproof casserole.
4. Nestle the thyme, rosemary and garlic in with the duck legs (unless you have seasoned them in the curing stage, in which case, rinse them of the salt and herbs, pat dry), and pour the melted duck fat over the legs to just cover.
5. Cover the dish with foil and put in the oven. Cook for about an hour, or until the skin at the "ankle" of each leg pulls away from the "knuckle." The meat should be tender.
6. Allow to cool and then store as is in the refrigerator, sealed under the fat. When you need the confit, you can either warm the whole dish, in which case removing the legs will be easy, or dig them out of the cold fat and scrape off the excess. I highly recommend the former. A nice touch at this point is to twist out the thighbone from the cold confit. Just place one hand on the drumstick, pinioning the leg to the table, and with the other hand, twist out the thighbone, plucking it from the flesh without mangling the thigh meat. Think of someone you hate when you do it.

Ingredients for Cassoulet

5 cups/1200 ml/1100 g/39 oz dried Tarbais beans or white beans such as Great Northern or Cannelini (if you use canned beans be aware that you will need double this amount!) (I, Claudia, used 1/2 white Northern and 1/2 black, just because that was what I had on hand.)
2 pounds/900 gm fresh pork belly (here I used bacon and skipped the pork rind)
1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
1 pound/450 gm pork rind
1 bouquet garni (tie together two sprigs parsley, 2 sprigs thyme and one bay leaf)
salt and pepper
1/4 cup/60 ml/55 gm duck fat
6 pork sausages
3 onions, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced (plus I added 2 large cloves, 1 carrot, chopped, and 1 stick celery, chopped, and   after sauteing, 1 can chopped tomatoes, as it looked to need more veggies.  Sorry, it really did.)
4 confit duck legs

Day Two continued

1. Drain and rinse the beans and place in the large pot.
2. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, 1/4 pound/115 gm of the pork rind, and the bouquet garni.
3. Cover with water, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and continue to simmer until the beans are tender, about 30 minutes more.

4. Let cool for 20 minutes, then discard the onion and the bouquet garni.
5. Remove the pork belly, cut it into 2-inch/5-cm squares, and set aside. (If you plan to wait another day before finishing the dish, wait to cut the pork belly until then.)
6. Strain the beans and the rind and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately.
7. In the sauté pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon/15 ml/15 gm of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent.

8. Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides.(As you'll notice I crisped the duck legs too.)
9. Remove sausages and set aside, draining on paper towels.

10. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the sliced onions, the garlic (as noted above, I added extra veggies here) and the reserved squares of pork rind from the beans (not the unused pork rind; you'll need that later). 
11. Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add 1 tablespoon//15 ml/15 gm of the remaining duck fat and purée until smooth. Set aside. (I skipped this step altogether.)
12. Preheat the oven to moderate 350ºF/180ºC/gas mark 4.

13.Place the uncooked pork rind in the bottom of a deep ovenproof non-reactive dish. You're looking to line the inside, almost like a pie crust. (I cut the bacon in 1 inch squares and partly rendered it first.) Arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, then pork belly, beans, duck confit and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork rind purée between each layer. (I mixed the vegetables in with the beans first, then cut the sausages into chunks, removed the meat from the duck, shredded it then added all the meat to the beans, so everything is mixed together, before putting on top of the bacon.)

14. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving 1 cup/240 ml in the refrigerator for later use. (I didn't have quite enough so used white wine to bring the level up.)
15. Cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to very slow 250ºF/130ºC/gas mark ½ and cook for another hour.
16. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.

Day Three - EATING DAY!

1. Preheat the oven to moderate 350ºF/180ºC/gas mark 4 again.
2. Cook the cassoulet for an hour.

3. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add 1/4 cup/60 ml of the reserved cooking liquid. (Don't get fancy. Just pile, dab, stack and pile. It doesn't have to be pretty.)  (1 cup breadcrumbs mixed with parsley and minced garlic can go on here or as I did for the last 1/2 hour to be sure it was browned and crispy).

4. Reduce the heat to very slow 250ºF/130ºC/gas mark ½ and continue cooking another 15 minutes, or until screamingly hot through and through. Then serve.

We had some fresh garlic sourdough bread with it, and olives, celery sticks and pickles on the side.  What a homey, satisfying winter dish.  Beans at their best.  Definitely use the bread crumb topping, as their crispy crunch nicely offsets the meaty stew. The only thing I'd do differently next time would be to use all Great Northern instead of half and half, as those black beans  muddied the color of the white ones.  They just don't mix in well.  Very poorly behaved.  Also, if I'd known how many this dish would feed, I'd have invited more people over.  We had 5 at dinner, and could have had double that number.  Or not.  This way we have lots of delicious left-overs.  And that after cutting the recipe in half.  If you don't halve this, get yourself a really large pot.  You'll need it.

To see what some of the other participant Daring Cooks did, check the link.  Some of the options were using chicken instead of duck, making your own sausage and vegetarian versions.


Swathi said...

Looks delicious, they are perfected wholesome dish.

Lisa said...

Wow, Claudia, you really rocked this challenge, and your knowledge of confit, rendering your own duck fat for it, is fantastic. I have yet to render fat from a chicken, much less a duck! Your cassoulet turned out beautiful and looks delicious!! SO glad you took part in our challenge!

Joanne said...

I love seeing all these cassoulet recipes and it's amazing to me how many steps you have to go through to get the finished product! Looks delicious.

Jenni said...

Great job! Your cassoulet looks wonderful!!

Lana said...

I enjoyed making the cassoulet and the family liked the finished product, even though they had to wait several days:) I was pleasantly surprised by the complexity of flavors. Next time I have to do it the right way with the duck, instead of the chicken - I did not know where to find the duck legs:)
Long and slow in the oven, overnight? I can do that:)
Your photos are beautiful, BTW.

Katerina said...

It is amazing how much work you put on that! I am sure it was worth all the effort!It looks so rich and hearty.

Couscous & Consciousness said...

My goodness - your cassoulet looks absolutely wonderful - this is definitely on my must try list - I'm still waiting for "a round tuit" but I'm sure that will happen one day :-)

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The Food Hunter said...

This looks delicious.