Cassoulet and the quest for the best in the South of France

Cheat’s Rainy Day Cassoulet

A budget and time friendly recipe

cassoulet image

I’ve made many a version of cassoulet over the years. Cassoulet is a bean stew that acquired its name from the vessel in which it is cooked, and it’s known to have originated as a peasant dish (though I’d hardly call duck legs and lardons plus garlic sausage and buckets of duck fat peasanty).

For years I’ve used the basic ingredients involved to make a thrifty supper– a baked dish with white beans and sausages, sometimes fresh or slow cooked tomato, topped with croutons and a smattering of herbs. If you look up cassoulet recipes, many popular chefs have done the same. Raymond Blanc likes to make his with a little tomato too.

Sometimes chefs and cooks call the dish bean stew or ‘cassoulet-inspired’, as I’m sure you have too.

For years, it would seem, I have erred in my perception of the cassoulet which is a slow cooked dish, involving many steps and, well, lots of fat. Lots of expensive fat, in my opinion – duck, lardon, pork skin etc. You can read a fascinating account of the history of cassoulet here.

Waiter, there's a cassoulet above my head!

Waiter, there’s a cassoulet above my head!

I planned a trip to the South of France in April this year, and travelled from Toulouse to Monaco for a wine judging event with Women and Wine of the World International competition that I also attended last year, and then moved on to Nice. And one of my goals was to find what authentic cassoulet, if there is such a thing, should taste like, the essential ingredients used and where the best one can be enjoyed. I did mention I enjoy a food adventure or two, right?

Toulouse, now populated by the many youngsters who attend the universities situated there, is often attributed as the original source. It’s true you can find many fine (and many mediocre) earthenware bowls of cassoulet but as I have discovered, it is said to have originated in the neighbouring town of Castelnaudary. In fact the town boasts signage containing a drawing of a bowl of what can only be cassoulet at almost with every announcement of its name. A less than subtle indicator that the cassoulet credit has been claimed.

Castelnaudary trees

Castelnaudary

That being so, I wasn’t going to let anything go to chance and so I researched as best I could the must-try places for a fine bowl of bean stew. It was the start of spring, and the weather moderately warm but this did not put me off. Cassoulet is hearty and in our parts we associate it with winter- beans, cuts of pork, lardons, garlic sausage, duck leg confit…That, and the portions are hefty. Deterred, I was not.

These are two experiences that stand out:

Le Colombier makes a single cassoulet dish containing haricot beans, lardons, sausage and confit goose, not duck, leg. In the middle of the previous century that restaurant was called: “Pension bourgeoise : Au Véritable Cassoulet de Castelnaudary”, an indication of the culinary history of the place.

Cassoulet at le Colombier

The meal was thick and comforting and at this stage already I realised that the salad leaves coated in a red wine vinegar were a necessary match to help balance and cut through the deeply savoury and fatty dish. I barely had room for a few bites of the apple tarte served with lime and fig sorbet.

In Castelnaudary, the town with the inviting cassoulet-bowl signs, we went to the black and white dining room of a two star hotel, cumbersomely named Hotel Restaurant du Centre et du Lauragais. This time we ordered a beef dish and a single cassoulet. I can’t say that I preferred this one over the night before’s but it was melt-in-the-mouth and contained duck instead of goose and the top was beautifully charred.

After lunch we waited about for the local grocery store to be reopened for the day (as is the case in many little towns, stores take a midday break) and here I purchased jams, wine, local biscuits and medium-sized dried haricot beans. I think you know where I am going with this.

canal in sleepy Castelnaudary

Canal in sleepy Castelnaudary

Neither of these versions used bread crumbs (as favoured by many modern recipes), though in the second you can see a generous twist of black pepper. I’m not saying either is right or wrong, I myself have used garlic croutons when I’ve had bread going a little old lying about. It does add a lovely contrast with the crunch.

Castelnaudary cassoulet

Castelnaudary cassoulet

Two weeks later, I made a few versions of the dishes I ate in the South. I didn’t have access to duck legs at the time and made the firm decision (after all that time of excessive eating – cheeses and rich pastries, bread and wines) that I was not going to confit anything. Instead I used chicken thighs, skin on and allowed them to crisp up atop the cassoulet. A genuinely peasanty (read: cheapskate or cost-effective) version of the original.

After all that effort, travelling thousands of miles to learn and sample the real deal, I returned to make yet another quick-fix version of the original. I feel the food universe shaking its judgemental head at me. Taste-wise, in my mind and to that of my family – none of the flavour is sacrificed. Calling it Cheat’s Cassoulet is a little unfair as it really does deliver that combination of unctuous soft beans and thick stew with meaty (porky) flavour, and it has the bonus of being miles easier and obviously less expensive to make. This will remain a winter comfort food staple at ours.

The essential elements: large white beans, preferably haricot, an infusion of pork (slightly smokey) flavour, garlic and crispy skin is optional

For more traditional recipe, one that takes up to three days to execute, Anthony Bourdain’ is pretty good.

Cheat’s Rainy Day Cassoulet

Cheat's cassoulet

Ingredients

Serves 4

500g dried haricot beans (medium size), soaked in three times amount of water overnight.

1.5 l vegetable or chicken stock plus extra water

2 medium bay leaves

400 g can cooked speckled haricot beans (optional – I used this to bulk up the dish)

4-6 chicken thighs, skin on

2-3 T olive oil

300 g lardons, cut into 1 cm strips

6 medium sized garlic or Polish-style (garlic infused) fresh pork sausages

1 large onion, diced

2-3 T duck fat (substitute with olive oil)

10 cloves of garlic, peeled and cut in thick slices.

1 /2 celery rib, finely sliced

few sprigs thyme

white pepper, taste

salt, to taste

winter cassoulet

winter cassoulet

Method

1. Rinse the beans well and cover with the stock, add more water if needed and a teaspoon of salt. Add a few lardons to the pot plus one bay leaf and boil for an hour or so – the beans must be al dente and maintain their shape. You may have to top up water during the process. Drain and remove lardons and bay leaf. Season with salt and white pepper, mixing very gently.

2. Dry chicken well with paper towels and rub a clove of garlic all over the chicken. Heat medium sized non-stick saucepan to high. Add oil and fry skin side down. Brown well on both sides. Remove chicken and leave on absorbent paper towels.

3. In same pan brown sausages and the lardons well and dry off on absorbant paper towels.

4. While the beans are cooking, heat the same saucepan used in steps 1-3 to medium heat and add the duck fat. Add the onions and after a few seconds reduce the heat to medium-low. You want them to sweat, not brown. Add the celery, one sprig of thyme (lossen some of the leaves), remaining bay leaf and the garlic. Cook until the onions are translucent and soft. Mix this through the beans, along with the duck fat, very gently, and adjust seasoning if need be. Also add the canned beans at this point, if using.

5. Preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Now layer a large clay or earthenware vessel or ovenproof dish with beans, some thyme leaves loosened from the stalks, the sausage and crisp lardons and another layer of beans and thyme leaves. Top with the chicken.

6. Bake covered tightly with foil for an hour, making a small gash on top of the foil.

7. Remove the foil and turn the setting to grill – about 240 – 250 degrees Celsius, with the dish at least 15 cm away from the top. Grill until the chicken skin becomes golden and puffy – about 6-8 minutes. Take care not to burn it.

Serve with an astringent (red wine vinegar or even plain vinegar) dressed green salad and crusty bread.

a fabulous cheat's cassoulet

 

 


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