January 18, 2022 — French
This cassoulet includes Toulouse sausages. Elizabeth David has a recipe for cassoulet with Toulouse sausages and calls it cassoulet de Touluse à la ménagère. I think the translation is roughly housewife’s Toulouse cassoulet. So my version is translated as Dad’s Toulouse cassoulet!
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500g Tarbais haricot beans, or other similar large white haricot (from online French retailer or market) or cannellini beans.
500g pork belly with rind
500g pork spareribs
200g smoked bacon lardons or 500g thick smoked bacon slices cut into large pieces
500g Toulouse sausages (ideally from French retailer or market)
6 x confit of duck leg (homemade or purchased from French retailer or market) or fresh duck legs
2 large white onions
2 medium carrots chopped
2 sticks of celery chopped
4 cloves of garlic chopped
2 cloves of garlic unpeeled
large bunch of parsley with stalks
4 large beef tomatoes skinned and deseeded
350ml dry white wine
800ml chicken stock
Fresh sprigs of thyme
Goose or duck fat or olive oil
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A cassoulet is a rustic casserole of beans and meats from the south of France. Richard Olney, says in the preface to his book, Simple French Food, that the cassoulet is a classic example of a ‘simple food’. Indeed, the cassoulet is often described as peasant food. However, Olney also says that like so many simple historic culinary preparations, it also has complex aspects, mainly alchemical, where poor or vulgar elements can be transformed into something transcendental. So simple, not really, peasant, maybe, wonderful, yes.
I was first attracted to cassoulet from American childhood memories of tins of ‘pork and beans’. The addition of pork to the beans seemed to elevate the beans above the ordinary tins of beans (even though it could be hard to actually find any pork!) ‘Franks and beans’ is another American variation that includes frankfurters – or wieners – with the beans. Elsewhere, the Spanish fabada is a stew of meat and beans, the Portuguese feijoada is a stew of pork beef and beans, and there are many Arab variations on dried fava bean and lamb stews. Clearly, the idea of beans and meat is not new or distinctly French.
My current fondness for cassoulet is based on the delicious and transformative addition of duck confit to the beans. Although it is very common for cassoulets to feature confit of duck, not all cassoulets do. As Jenny Baker mentions in her book Simple French Cuisine, there is as much mystique surrounding the cassoulet as there is for the bouillabaisse – and with as many variations as there are cooks.
Elizabeth David, in her book, French Provencal Cooking, gives a recipe of the Languedoc, which includes garlic sausage, confit goose, shoulder of mutton and salt pork. Her recipe for cassoulet de Toulouse, is better known and includes Toulouse sausages, garlic boiling sausage, pork spareribs, shoulder of lamb and salt pork – but no confit of duck or goose. Whereas Julia Child, in her book, French Cooking (Volume One), says that Touloussains insist that a cassoulet includes goose confit (she presumes this is because of all the geese in the area providing the local delicacy, foie gras). She goes on to dismiss such talk of history and geographic provenance as historic background… since a good cassoulet can be made anywhere out of beans and whatever traditional meats are available: goose, game, pork, sausages, lamb, mutton. Though her recipe only includes confit goose as a variation (she also mentions duck as a variation, but fresh duck, not confit).
So where and when did cassoulet become synonymous with confit of duck? Perhaps it was the commercialisation of cassoulet, where it might have been easier to tuck the duck legs into the large tins of cassoulet. Or perhaps the drop in demand for foie gras, means there are not as many geese about? Either way, it is the preserved nature of either duck or goose that enriches the cassoulet. And for a devoted foodie, there can be no better challenge than making confit of duck legs in anticipation of making a cassoulet a couple weeks later…
Notes on ingredients
As described in the story above, a cassoulet is basically a meat and bean stew. And similar dishes use all types of beans and meat, so if ingredients are difficult to source, we do not need to get too hung up on being highly authentic. What I feel is important is that the beans are allowed to cook with some braising type of meat and bones, which can help identify the best type of ingredients. The method of cooking is staged so that braising type meat is introduced at the beginning and tender meats are added toward the end.
Many recipes include lamb or mutton, but although I was tempted, adding lamb to the list of meat felt like too much meat. In any event, I believe cassoulet are as much about the beans than the meat. But even here, the French haricots used in cassoulets are rather specialist – Elizabeth David says to use haricot of the type ‘Soissons’ – they are much larger, even larger than a cannellini. They are also very expensive – but if you can source a similar bean (such as haricot Tarbais), I feel they are worth extra cost. Le Marché du Quatier in London’s Borough Market sells large haricot beans loosely wrapped (as well as excellent duck confit). I got my haricot Tarbais (and Toulouse sausages) from French Click online store. Some recipes include garlic sausage, but I find this unrelentingly garlicky. However, it is the nature of cassoulet to have some garlic in the flavour.
Many traditional cassoulets include large pork rinds and though I get the idea of gelatinous fat melding ingredients together, I cut back by using a smaller rind still attached to a belly of pork. I think bones are a good idea for a cassoulet – they could come from a knuckle of pork, but I used pork spare ribs. Salt pork is often called for and I presume this is a cured gammon joint – perhaps another knuckle. I have used bacon lardons instead which impart a little salt into the mix. If you can find large thick slices of smoked bacon so much the better. There is often something smoked so I combined the salt and smoke in smoked bacon.
Finally, the duck confit. These are great to make at home, but they are a bit of a fuss. You can buy them at some French retailers (Le Marché du Quatier mentioned above) or from specialist butchers. Otherwise, If Julia Child suggest fresh duck, you could try fresh, but the curing of a confit does impart a distinctive flavour, so I would try to seek these out – even at the cost of compromising elsewhere…
On cooking and eating
This dish requires a lot of cooking time. Most of the recipes in my books say serve at midday, but that will require a very early start. It does feel like a Sunday lunch type of meal, but I think it is fine to eat at night (providing you keep to normal portions). Otherwise, cook it the day before and keep it in the fridge. Re-heat for a good 2 hours at 160C, Gas 3.
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