Cassoulet — Why did I wait so long to make this?

Oh, for years I’d made a couple of things approaching cassoulet–the incredible French bean dish made with pork, sausage, lamb, duck…you name it…someone somewhere in France puts it in there. (The name comes from “cassole d’Issel,” an earthenware pot in which the dish is made. I had no such dish.) I had even come up with a delectable bean soup with some of the necessary components (another blog.) But I’d never bitten the bullet and really done the thing right. Somehow, as I mentioned in one of the December blogs, I decided this was the year we’d have it for Christmas Eve dinner. Well, we had it all right…and it WAS wonderful and it WAS time-consuming and it WAS earthy and filling and, well, heart-warming and, ok, it was (and is) just a little bit of a sexy dish that you have no choice but to put your heart and soul into or it’ll never get done. You must dedicate yourself to this dish. Be commited, as it were. It took me this long to find the time to blog the process (and process it is); forgive me. One note before I forget:

If you are going to make and photograph cassoulet, get a new camera FIRST. My old camera died and died and some of the pictures are taken with that beast—- and some are from my 2 megpixel phone and some are…I don’t even know how I got them… They aren’t professional, but they document the process. (I got a new Sony 12. something mp for Christmas AND a new computer; not using either one here…. Coming up, I promise.) Ok, back to cassoulet and why it’s so good and why it’s so loving and lovely.
To begin with, it’s French. If you say it right, it just sounds like something very good to eat…to experience… hmm —to have a little bit of France wherever you might be… God is so very good to provide a good wineshop down the street (Coaltrain’s is my favorite in Colorado Springs; Thomas Liquors in St. Paul)……… and the wine you drink with it helps the whole thing along.

“I’m making cassooolay………”

Who else in the world would spend 3 days on baked beans?

“We’re having cassoolay……”

Thank God someone else is going to eat this; there’s enough for a week…We can do

———a party! Whose anniversary is it?

“We’re having a Beaujolais with our cassoolay….”

—- This is sounding better by the minute…..I think I WILL finish making the _____.

“We might have a Rhone with our cassooolay….”

In fact, this is sounding like we should begin right now….and maybe make more. (not)

So, I was definitely making cassoulet, but how was I to do it? I have no less than 20 recipes for the dish and those are from my books, not off the net. Remember I’ve collected cookbooks and magazines from long before Epicurious took off. Maybe you have, too. For years, traveling with my little band around the globe, there was just me, the cooking friends I knew, and Elizabeth David or MFK Fisher or Craig Claiborne or JOY or James Beard or Julia, as people now call her….. There was the long awaited GOURMET or BON APPETIT. Cooks, home cooks, just mostly had their heads. There was no Tyler Florence; no food network! And, years ago, you just didn’t pitch old magazines– thinking the recipes were all available on-line. You kept them all. You remembered where most of the recipes were and developed indexes in your recipe boxes (or notebooks) for the rest, including menus. Those days of keeping everything are gone (for me), but I do still have friends whose basements are full of GOURMET. Now I think they’re pretty smart as GOURMET is no more. I donated my entire collection of cooking magazines (except for the favorite holiday issues from the last year or two) to the library and, I’m guessing even they pitched them. Tangent.
Anyway, I didn’t dare start cruising the on-line sources. I had enough possibilities. Also, on-line searching has become so cumbersome and repetitive that I become quite sick of it fast. I read two of the recipes thoroughly well, nearly well, anyway…a long version and a short version. The long version, was, of course, on page 399 of MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING, vol. 1 by Julia Child, and is called “French Baked Beans…Cassoulet.” The short version was from Molly O’Neill in the December, 2009 issue of COOKING LIGHT, on page 136; CL lightened the recipe up a bit by using chicken sausage. So I went from 1961-2009 and why not?
I then looked over the rest of the recipes, even one from the BETTY CROCKER INTERATIONAL COOKBOOK, from which I, some years ago, learned to make lovely eggrolls, beef strogonoff and minestrone! BC threw a little dried mustard into the beans. I wasn’t doing that. Otherwise, the flavors seemed similar.
Oh, do remember, we’re talking about December 23 (look at the stollen recipe pictures from the New Year’s Day brunch blog and see the wine glasses still sitting around from another holiday dinner the night before) and I’m teaching two little kids to make Christmas bread while I work on the cassoulet in the breaks. The recipe I settled for was something in between the short and long version and I put away the BC totally. Back on the shelves went my beloved Patricia Wells and even THE AUBERGE OF THE FLOWERING HEARTH, which had no cassoulet that I could find, but always holds my heart never-the-less. I did not have enough time to cook lamb, duck, pork and garlic sausage. So this is what I did about the meat:
  • I used a small pork shoulder (well trimmed!) for the basic bean cooking, keeping out pound and a half – or so to make the sausage.
  • I bought duck (legs) confit for a horrible price at Whole Foods. (Worth it if you’re rushed.)
  • I had my talented husband take the extra pork and make French garlic sausage, as no one that I could find sold it nearby. I found directions on-line, but later noticed Julia had one.
  • I (sob sob sob) skipped the lamb, despite having some lamb stew meat frozen in my big garage freezer.

I did not document the process precisely as there was not one inch of unoccupied space in my galley kitchen during the two days before Christmas. My pictures are helpful, however, and I will bring together the recipe I think I made. Also, I have some in the freezer and can unthaw it and look at it if needed. If you live nearby and want to taste this, let me know! What’s beautiful about this sort of dish, is that just like your own favorite baked beans or chili, it’s never exactly like any recipe.. it’s how you liked to make it that day. It changes with the year, the availability of ready cash for duck confit, the wine vintage and with how your heart is cooking.

Take the plunge; make a date; invite a group for a birthday or Valentine’s Day or to ski and–
serves 12
Cook’s Note: You must begin a day or two ahead for this version…You can almost finish the dish the day before you need it if you begin two days ahead. You can then just do the final baking on the day you need to serve the meal. Read through the recipe before starting. This is done in stages…first the soaking of the beans, then the cooking of the beans and pork, overnight in the frig, the making of the sausage, the first cooking of the casserole, the second cooking with all meats and bread crumbs… You’ll get the idea; give yourself time. It’s worth it. It’ll hold once done…just don’t let it dry out. If it does, warm it up with the addition of a little chicken stock or white wine.

1 1/2 # white beans of your choice, rinsed and picked through for bad beans and stones
3# pork roast, boneless and trimmed well (or you can bone it) (You’ll cut some into 1-2″ pieces to cook with the beans and later use the rest to make a quick sausage)
1-3T canola oil, divided (you’ll need some to fry the sausage)
3 large onions, chopped coarsely
5 cloves of garlic, minced
4-5 large carrots, cleaned, peeled and sliced thickly (you don’t want them to disappear in the long cook)
2 cups chopped celery
1 14 oz can of tomatoes, crushed or 6 T tomato paste (Julia’s first choice)
1/2 bottle of white wine (I used an inexpensive Chardonnay)
2 32 oz boxes of chicken stock, low-sodium
Bouquet garni, composed of 2 -3 stalks celery, 8 stalks of parsley, 2 bay leaves, 5-6 sprigs thyme*
Kosher Salt/Freshly ground pepper
4 Duck confit legs (or 3 grilled duck breasts, fat removed and meat chopped after grilling)
2# “French” garlic sausage (recipe below–need 1/2 # bacon and 3-4 garlic cloves in addition to above pork)
1/2 c fresh bread crumbs
2t olive oil
*Bouquet garni: Tie together these vegetables/herbs with kitchen string; you remove them before baking the cassoulet.
Directions: Be brave, loved ones……… Don’t do this alone; find a friend!
In a large stockpot, bring beans and water just to cover to a boil for five minutes. Turn heat off, cover, and let beans sit for an hour. If desired, you can, instead, let beans soak overnight.
In a large skillet, brown a little less than half of the remaining pork, cut into 1-2″ pieces, in a little bit of canola oil. When well-browned on all sides, remove to a paper-towel covered platter and add onions, celery and carrots to the skillet. Add a little extra oil if needed. After the vegetables are almost soft, add the garlic and tomatoes and saute for another 3-4 minutes, stirring.
To the stockpot with the beans, add the drained and browned pieces of pork and then sauteed vegetable mixture. Pour into the pot half of the chicken stock and all of the wine. Add water to make about six cups total of liquid or to make sure there is plenty of liquid in which to cook the beans. Season with about 2 t kosher salt and 1/2 tsp freshly-ground black pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer. Cook 2 to 2 1/2 hours until beans are tender, watching liquid level and adding more water or stock as needed. Beans should boil freely. Let the pot cool and refrigerate overnight.
Meantime, make the garlic sausage and cook and bone the duck. You can do it that night or the next day, depending on the time you have. If you do it that night, refrigerate the meats separately.
Making the Garlic Sausage:
You can look a recipe up on-line (NYTIMES: Nov 4, 1981: Saucissons a L’Ail (French Garlic Sausage) by Craig Claiborne– or many other sites) or you can try the version we made, which was tres delicious. Be bold; try it!
Take the other pound and half or so of lean pork roast and about a half pound of good-quality bacon and finely mince/grind the two together in the food processor, fitted with the sharp blade. Season with TABLE salt (not Kosher or sea–it must really blend) and finely-ground pepper. Add 3-4 finely chopped cloves of garlic and mix very well.
Take out a tiny patty and fry it up. How does it taste? If it is bland, adjust seasoning and fry and taste again. Some people like a bit of allspice, a tad of sugar or some wine added to this sausage. Si place. (Do as you like.)
To a medium skillet, add about 1T of canola oil and place the sausage into the pan, creating a very large sausage patty. Fry on one side over medium heat until golden and flip. Finish cooking on the other side. Remove to paper-towel covered platter and cool. Cut into 1-2″ pieces. Sample some. You should have more than you’ll need. Cut a bit of baguette, add a little cornichon- or any pickle-add some grainy mustard and eat some of your sausage with that. You deserve a snack. God is, indeed, Good. Now you’re ready for onward and upward.


Place your duck legs into a “pammed” baking casserole and bake at 400 degrees 10-12 minutes. Cool and bone. Reserve meat.

Preheat oven to 325 (350 for altitude baking) Take bean mixture out of the refrigerate and warm up over medium heat, stirring frequently. Add the rest of the chicken stock. Taste. If you season now, remember that you will soon add sausage that is well-seasoned. Add boned duck. Pour mixture into a large Dutch oven or very large casserole and bake for about 2 hours.

Reduce oven temperature by 50 degrees. Remove Dutch oven and add cut-up sausage. Stir well and taste. Season as needed. Sprinkle bean mixture with fresh bread crumbs and drizzle with olive oil. Bake @ 275 or 300F for another 1 1/2 -2 hours, depending on
altitude. Beans should be very tender; casserole should be nicely browned. Remove and let stand for 15 minutes before serving. Do let people help themselves from the stove for an informal meal.
Wine: Beaujolais or Cotes du Rhone–nothing expensive or fancy.

Serve with: a little bread and butter……..salad if you want.
Dessert: Oh, not this night. You need a little cognac only for a digestion!
Bon appetit, my friends. If you’ve waited this long to eat…-or read this blog!- you should have a GOOD APPETITE BY NOW!!!
Listen to lots of good songs while you cook this; cook with friends and share this wonderful dish,
In Memoriam: Tavern on the Green, NYC — So sad.

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