The history of cassoulet is a history of Languedoc, and long associated with three ancient cities: Toulouse, Castelnaudary, and Carcassonne that lie along the tree-lined Canal du Midi in southwestern France. Traditionally, each of these towns has its own version of the dish, although it's generally acknowledged that cassoulet had its beginnings in Castelnaudary, when during a siege of the town by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355, the besieged towns people gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron. A slow-simmered mix of beans, pork sausages, pork shoulder, pancetta, and duck, cassoulet takes its name from the earthenware 'cassol' in which it was traditionally made. The Castelnaudary version is the most rustic and is based largely on pork and pork rind, sausage, and sometimes goose; the Carcassonne variety contains leg of mutton and occasionally partridge; and the cassoulet of Toulouse includes fresh lard, mutton, local Toulouse sausage, and duck or goose. No matter which cassoulet you make, it's important to follow one important rule: use only the very best ingredients.
This famous bean stew — and 'bean stew' hardly conveys the complexity of its flavours — is subject to much debate about what constitutes a 'true”' cassoulet, for there is likely a different recipe in every kitchen, even in the Langedoc. But Cassoulet is what slow food is all about, and it takes time to prepare. This recipe is one my husband makes each winter, and is his adaptation of Cassoulet Castelnaudray, a rich, authentic, full-bodied feast which he feels is best served around two in the afternoon on a cold snowy weekend and enjoyed with your best friends and a couple bottles of 2005 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru. He starts by making his own duck confit a few days before, and uses Toulouse sausage, unsmoked ham hock, pork shoulder, pork belly, pancetta and thick meaty beef short ribs in lieu of lamb, for his 2018 Cassoulet Castelnaudray creation. Made only once a year, it's his labour of love, and we love him for it.
The duck is cut up into legs and breasts and browned thoroughly
Once browned, the duck is placed in a large pan and covered with enough rendered fat to cover then simmered for 2 hours until cooked through
Once cool enough to handle, the duck fat is removed and the duck meat is shredded
The duck fat is reserved for future use
The ham hock is salted two days in advance of making the cassoulet
The beans are covered with water and soaked one day before making the cassoulet
The beans, pancetta and pork belly are brought to a boil and blanched for 10 minutes,
then drained, separated and chilled overnight
An embarrassment of riches — all of the meat required for the cassoulet
Toulouse sausage from The Sausage King by Olliffe, St Lawrence Market
Salt pork from Brandt Meats
Pancetta from Brandt's
Pork Shoulder from Brandt's
Beef short ribs from The Sausage King, which we use instead of lamb
A big slab of pork rind from the St Lawrence Market, which is used to line the cassoulet pot
Toulouse sausage is browned for 10 minutes
The pork shoulder is cut into smaller pieces and browned for 8 to 10 minutes
The ham hock is browned in the same pot, for about 5 minutes
The beef short ribs browned for 8 to 10 minutes
All of the cooked meat is placed in a bowl
The tomatoes are blanched to ease the removal of the skins, then diced
The diced tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic and bouquet garni are added
to the sautéed onions and carrots
All of the meat, spring water and white wine are added to the vegetables
and simmered for 2 hours
Building the cassoulet begins with a layer of pork rind on the bottom of the pot
Half of the beans are layered on top
The mixture of cooked meats are added on top of the beans
Using your hands ensures that the mixture is spread evenly
The complete layer: Toulouse sausage, duck confit, pork shoulder,
beef short ribs, pork belly and ham hock
The remainder of the beans are added on top...
...until they cover the meat completely
The reserved broth is poured over the cassoulet until it just reaches the top of the beans
Bread crumbs are sprinkled on top
The bread crumbs are dotted with the remaining 3 tablespoons of duck fat,
and the cassoulet is then baked at 275°F for four hours
The cassoulet after 2 hours in the oven
The final cassoulet, golden brown and perfectly cooked
Two treasured bottles of 2005 Chateau L'Arrosee, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru are ready to be
decanted and served with lunch
The table is set for the Annual Cassoulet Lunch
Complete with the menu du jour
Cassoulet Castelnaudray à la Guy
2 lb un-smoked ham hock
1 cup coarse salt
4 cups dried Great Northern white beans, soaked in water to cover overnight
1/2 lb pork belly
1/4 lb pancetta
1 lb fresh pork skin
1/2 cup duck fat from the confit
1 1/2 lb Toulouse sausage
1 3/4 pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into smaller pieces
1 1/2 lb beef short ribs, trimmed of fat and cut into smaller pieces
2 medium-size onions, peeled, and each studded with 2 cloves
1 large carrot, sliced into rounds
1 lb ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
3 tbsp tomato paste
10 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Bouquet garni, tied: 10 sprigs fresh parsley, thyme and 2 bay leaves
1 litre bottled spring water, such as Evian
1 litre dry white wine
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh bread crumbs, made from a French baguette in a food processor
2 lb duck, whole
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp black pepper
3 sprigs thyme
3 bay leaves, broken
6 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tbsp olive oil
4 cups rendered duck fat, purchased in tubs
Making Homemade Duck Confit: 2 Days Before
Carve the duck into pieces, separating the legs, breasts, wings and remaining carcass, then place in a large dish or pan. Mix together the salt, pepper, thyme, bay leaves and garlic, and rub thoroughly into the duck meat. Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours.
Heat the olive oil in a large pan over moderate heat and brown the duck pieces thoroughly, skin side down first, then all over. Once done, place all of the duck into an oven-proof pot in which they fit snuggly as possible, adding the seasonings and enough rendered fat to cover, or almost cover, the meat. We melted 2 two-cup purchased tubs of rendered duck fat to add to the fat from the duck, so that we had enough to cover the meat. Then cook in a low 300°F oven for 2 hours, turning the pieces if duck once or twice during the cooking time. Remove from the oven, cover and leave to cool. Once safe to handle, pour the fat from the confit, tear the duck from the bone and chill both separately in plastic containers until needed.
Curing the Ham Hocks & Soaking the Beans: 2 Days Before
Roll the ham hocks in coarse salt and arrange in a glass or ceramic bowl, then cover and refrigerate for 48 hours, being sure to wash the salt off before adding to the cassoulet. Soak the beans in water to cover overnight.
Blanching the Beans: 1 Day Before
Drain the beans and bring a large pot of water to a gentle boil. Add the beans, pancetta and pork belly and blanch for 10 minutes, then take off the heat and allow to sit for an a hour. Drain into a colander, removing the pancetta and pork belly from the beans, and dice into smaller pieces; cover and chill overnight. Place the beans in a large bowl; cover and chill overnight.
Cooking the Meat: Early Morning of Cassoulet Day
Melt 5 tablespoons of duck fat from the confit in a large pot over a medium heat. Pierce the Toulouse sausages with a toothpick (so they don't burst while cooking) and brown for about 10 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove the sausages and set aside. Brown the pork shoulder cubes in the same casserole, for 8 to 10 minutes, then remove and set aside. Brown the ham hock in the casserole, about 5 minutes, remove and set aside. Brown the beef short ribs, about 8 to 10 minutes, remove and set aside.
Preparing the Cassoulet:
Add the clove-studded onions and sliced carrot to the casserole and cook until the onions turn colour, 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, bouquet garni, bottled water, wine and some salt and pepper, to taste. Return all the meats, including the shredded duck to the pan, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the meats are tender, about 2 hours.
Remove the ham hock, salt pork, Toulouse sausage, pork shoulder, beef ribs and duck, and using your hands, pull all of the good meat from the bones and reserve in a large bowl. Discard the bones and excess fat from the meat, and slice the sausage into thick rounds. Strain the broth through a colander, discarding the vegetables but saving the broth.
Baking the Cassoulet:
Preheat the oven to 275°F. Line the bottom of a large 6 to 8-quart casserole, with the flap of pork skin, fat side down. Pour in half of the beans, then top with the meat from the pork shoulder, ham hock, beef ribs, duck confit, pork belly, pancetta and sausages. Cover with the remaining beans. Pour enough of the reserved broth into the casserole until it just reaches the top of the beans. Sprinkle with the bread crumbs and dot with the remaining 3 tablespoons of duck fat. Bake, uncovered for 4 hours, until the crust is golden brown, breaking the crust seven times by pushing down slightly with the back of a ladle. Serve immediately with a couple of bottles of red wines from the Languedoc — because you deserve it!