Some dishes fall in the “labor of love” category. My short list includes Marcella Hazan’s amazing lasagna Bolognese, scratch made chicken pot pie and cassoulet – a French white bean casserole cooked with various pork and poultry products and maybe a bit of lamb or mutton.
“Cassoulet is not a recipe in France. It is a way to argue between villages.” — Ariane Daguin
Ariane, the Founder of D’Artagnan, is referring to the villages of Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary where the dish is claimed to have originated. The meats used in the dish are passionately debated between these villages but, the common denominator of cassoulet – haricot blanc, or white beans from the New World, are central to all versions.
Cassoulet is comfort food. Regardless of the exact recipe, it is more about the magical experience of a setting a steaming, rustic dish on the table to be enjoyed with family and friends.
A dish on the “labor of love” list by definition requires effort and a commitment of time from sourcing through serving. To prepare dishes in this category takes all, or most of a day. When this commitment is be made, cooking is an experience. Pots steaming on stove permeate the entire house with goodness making the endeavor not just worthwhile, but rewarding.
A commitment of this much time is a rarity in most of our busy worlds. I don’t think I have made Marcella’s lasagna more than four times over my lifetime and I am not a young man. One does get better at executing these dishes and I find Marcella’s lasagna more manageable than it was on my first attempt. Similarly, this is probably my fourth cassoulet. I’ll be the first to admit my earlier attempts were less than stellar.
I embarked on making this Cassoulet with high expectations. I am a better cook today than I once was after all. The dish turned out exceptionally well in no small part due to advice I gained from reading Kenji López-Alt’s great article, How to Make Traditional Cassoulet published on the Serious Eats blog. Kenji offers solid advice on the use of meat products readily accessible to American markets, enhancing flavor with duck fat, workflow and cooking times.
This recipe does depart from Chef Kenji’s in a couple of important ways. His Serious Eats version hacks store bought chicken stock with unflavored gelatin to achieve a crusty top to the cassoulet. Kenji, who is more than capable of making a homemade stock, chooses this alternative as a time saver for an otherwise lengthy cooking process. As a bonus, this makes the recipe a bit friendlier for the home cook. Reading some of Kenji’s other recipes, one might say that he is a has become a little obsessed over unflavored gelatin these days touting it as a panacea for home cooks who do not have a rich stock at the ready.
Cassoulet already requires a lengthy time commitment and starting a stock early in the morning does not add much additional effort to the cook. The stock used here is my go to Italian style brodo made with browned oxtails, chicken wings and aromatics. In my world, relying on store bought stock for a “labor of love” category dish is a definite No Bueno.
A second difference is the beans and I must admit I obsessed a little about this choice. Kenji uses dried Cannellini beans or white kidney beans. These are an excellent choice. Cannellini are commonly available and reasonably priced in the U.S. market. They are the equivalent to the French Lingot often used in cassoulet.
French Coco Tarbais beans, though expensive, are often recommended as the best choice for cassoulet even though frugal French housewives are said to use the much cheaper Lingot. Tarbais are available in stores and online from D’Artagnan (who markets an interesting cassoulet kit complete with a cassoul, or earthenware bowl) and Rancho Gordo. I have never tried Tarbais, but these are on my list.
A second bean frequently associated with cassoulet is the French Flageolet. These are picked young while the skin still has some green coloring. Flageolet lie somewhere between Cannellini and Tarbais in terms of cost and availability in the American market. I love these beans and these were my choice for this cassoulet. Flageolet can stand up to a long cooking time without the skins breaking and have a luxurious, creamy interior. These are available in stores or online from Rancho Gordo and Bob’s Red Mill.
As I mentioned, I learned from Kenji’s article about meat choices and workflow and these suggestions were used. Notably, Kenji recommends and uses chicken cooked with duck fat rather than either duck or goose confit in his recipe. An interesting idea also incorporated into this preparation.
This recipe serves four generously. I served it as dinner on New Year’s Day. The menu included a starter of good chèvre and olive tapenade, both of which are typical of Languedoc, a green salad dressed in vinaigrette and cassoulet –the star of the show. A simple French red wine – vin de pays – would be a interesting choice for what was once a peasant dish.
For the Brodo
- One package of oxtails (typically two large oxtails)
- Eight chicken wings
- 3 medium carrots cut in 3-inch pieces (reserve a handful of carrot greens)
- 2 medium celery stalks cut in 3-inch pieces
- 1 large onion quartered
- 1 handful flat leaf parsley
- 4 cloves of garlic partially smashed
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 star anise (optional)
For the Cassoulet
- 1 pound (16 ounces) of Flageolet of Cannellini beans
- 2 tablespoon of every day olive oil
- 8 ounces of salt pork cut into 3/4” pieces
- 3 to 4 Italian mild sausages. Other pork sausages may be substituted.
- 2 generous tablespoons of duck fat (optional, but strongly recommended)
- 4 to 6 chicken thighs, skin on
- Fresh ground black pepper
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot cut in 3-inch pieces
- 1 medium celery cut in 3-inch pieces
- 6 cloves of garlic smashed
- 1 small handful of chopped parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 cloves
- 4 cups of homemade brodo
- 1 teaspoon of Kosher salt, or to taste
For the Brodo
- Start the broth in the morning so it is ready when needed.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Place oxtails and chicken wings on an oiled sheet pan and brown in the oven for 30 to 45 minutes.
- Put all of the ingredients including the browned meats and the reserved carrot greens into a tall stockpot and cover with water to cover. Do not season with salt and pepper as this is done when the broth is used in recipes.
- Bring the water to a boil and then adjust the temperature so that the broth simmers over the stove. As it cooks, add additional water as needed.
- Let the stock simmer for 2 to 3 hours before straining and using.
For the Cassoulet
- To serve at 6 or 7pm, start the Cassoulet at noon.
- Place beans in a non-reactive bowl. Add cold water and set aside
- Place Dutch oven over a burner on medium high heat. Add olive oil.
- Add salt pork and cook until fat renders and pork is crisply – 8 to 10 minutes. When done remove the salt pork to a bowl.
- Add sausage to the pot and cook turning until all sides are brown – 8 to 10 minutes. When done remove sausages to the same bowl as the salt pork.
- Add duck fat to the pot. Season the chicken with freshly ground pepper (Do not use salt as the dish gains ample salt from the pork and from the beans).
- Add seasoned chicken skin side down to the pot and cook until brown (about 5 minutes) before turning and cooking for about 2 additional minutes. Remove chicken to the same bowl as the other meats.
- Drain all but 2 or 3 teaspoons of fat from the pot before adding onion and cooking until it is translucent. When the onion is translucent, add carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, bay leaves and cloves.
- Drain the beans and add to the pot along with 4 cups of the strained brodo.
- Bring to a boil then lower heat so that the beans are cooking on a simmer. Let cook 45 minutes uncovered on the stovetop adding additional broth, or water as needed. If the beans need a little salt after cooking for 45 minutes go ahead and add it, but don’t over do it.
- Add the meats to the pot so they are partially submerged in the beans while preheating the oven to 300 degrees.
- Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook for two hours. After two hours check adding water as needed. Add water along the edge of the pot to avoid the crust that is forming. Return to the oven.
- Cook in the oven for and additional 2 hours (4 hours total time in the oven) checking and adding water about every 30 minutes.
- When satisfied with doneness and the formation crust remove from the oven and serve immediately in individual bowls.
Note: Don’t obsess too much about the crust because it depends on how gelatinous your broth is more than anything. Overcooking can dry out the entire dish, so this must be balanced with the formation of crust. I don’t recommend cooking over 4 hours in the oven at 300 degree.