The birth of a Cassoulet

By Franz Scheurer

 

Cassoulet is a composite meat dish from the Languedoc region of France. The ingredients are haricot (white) beans, pork rind and meat with a gratin topping added at the end of the cooking process.  Purists insist on breaking the gratin crust several times, seven times in Castelnaudary, and eight times in Toulouse. Anatole France claimed in his “Histoire Comique” that the cassoulet he used to eat in a favourite establishment in Paris had been cooking for 20 years, thus placing cassoulet squarely within the “Pot-au-Feu” category of dishes, which, traditionally live on the stove through decades while subjected to daily subtractions and replenishments. It is true that long slow cooking is essential but it need not be carried to such extreme lengths.  It is interesting to note that in France, cassoulet accounts for one-fifth of all precooked canned dishes.

 

The name cassoulet comes from the glazed earthenware pot (cassole) in which the dish is traditionally cooked. Although it is generally agreed that the beans are the most important ingredient, others being subject to variation, the earliest versions of cassoulet must have had “Old World” beans since the haricot beans did not arrive in France via Spain from the “New World” until the 16th century. The variations exhibited by the best-known recipes concern the meat. The cassoulet of Castelnaudary uses ingredients such as pork, pork sausage and goose fat, whereas that of the Carcassonne may include leg of mutton and partridge in season. In Toulouse there will be Toulouse sausage and the possibility of mutton, duck or goose. The “Larousse Gastronomique” cites other versions from Moutauban and Comminges and quotes a gastronomic ‘decree’ of 1966 stating that a true cassoulet must contain at least 30% pork (which can include sausage), mutton, or confit d’oi (goose). However, the same work acknowledges the existence of a fish cassoulet made with salt cod.

 


 

Stage 1

Prepare the Duck Confit

 

Makes 10 legs

Ingredients:

10 x 220g duck legs

4 kg raw duck fat (or 2lt of rendered duck fat)

1 sprig of rosemary

1 whole head of garlic

½ tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp white peppercorns

 

Salting Mix:

90g rock salt, pounded to a powder

1 star anise, pounded to a powder

½ tsp coriander seeds, pounded to a powder

½ tsp white peppercorns, pounded to a powder

1 bay leaf

1 sprig of fresh thyme

3 cloves garlic

Zest from 1 small orange

½ a cinnamon quill (about 4 cm)

 

Method:

Rendering the duck fat

If you decide not to use rendered duck fat (there are excellent tins of duck or goose fat available from good food purveyors) you will net about half the weight. This is how you do it:

Crush the pepper and coriander in a mortar and pestle. Place this mixture, along with the duck fat, the rosemary and the unskinned head of garlic, split in half, in a heavy-based saucepan. Add about 200ml of water. Leave on very low heat for about 6 – 8 hours. When the fat is crystal clear pass it through a very fine sieve, ready for use.

If you decide to use the commercial preparations, bring the rendered duck or goose fat to a simmer, add the same aromatics and simmer for 30 minutes, then strain through a fine sieve.

 

Salting the duck legs:

Using a mortar and pestle grind the salt, star anise, coriander, pepper and cinnamon quill to a fine powder. Transfer to a bowl, add the thyme, the zest and the bay leaf. Rub the salt mix into the duck legs and place on a clean perforated tray. In turn, place this in a second tray to collect any moisture released, but be sure the legs are not standing in any liquid. Tuck the garlic between the legs and cover tightly with cling wrap. Allow to stand in thee fridge for 24 hours.

 

Cooking the duck legs

Pre heat oven to 140ºC

Gently melt the duck fat. Clean the salt mix off the legs with a fresh towel then place them in a heavy-based saucepan and pour the fat over them. Bring to simmering point. Cover with a lid and transfer the pan to the oven. Cook slowly for 3 ½ to 4 hours. Check your progress by removing one leg. If it is ready the meat will just fall off the bone. Make sure that the temperature of the fat never creeps up too high as you will end up with fried, stringy duck. When they are done, remove from the oven and rest at room temperature for 3 hours, in the fat!

 

Storing the Confit

Lift each leg out carefully, using a slotted spoon. Layer the meat into a stainless steel or earthenware dish. Strain the fat through a fine sieve then pour it over the meat.  Make sure the meat is totally covered. Store in the fridge for up to three months.

 


 

 

Stage 2

Preparing the Toulouse Sausage

 

Ingredients:

3 kg lean pork, coarsely chopped

1 kg hard back fat, chopped

200g tripe, cleaned, boiled until soft and chopped

200g Speck, cut into fine cubes

100g calf’s liver, minced

2 heads of garlic, peeled, minced

3 Spanish onions, peeled, chopped finely

1 tsp fresh thyme, de-leaved, chopped

1 tbs white sugar

1 sour apple, peeled, grated

80g salt

½ tsp saltpetre

25ml Madeira

25ml Brandy

3 egg yolks

Sausage casings, soaked and cleaned (Hog casings 38-42mm diameter are ideal)

 

Spice Mix

Pound in a mortar and pestle

1 tbs white peppercorns

1 tsp black peppercorns

½ tsp black mustard seeds

½ tsp yellow mustard seeds

1 tbs allspice

1 tsp ginger powder

1 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

3 cloves

½ cm Angelica root

½ tsp juniper berries

 

 

Method:

Pound all the spices to a fine powder. Mix together the meats, add the spices and work hard like dough on a cool surface for about 40 minutes. Put the meat into a large bowl and add all the other ingredients and knead well for another 15 minutes. Cover with cling wrap and rest in the refrigerator for 1 hour. Prepare the sausage cases and using a piping bag, a hand sausage filler or a sausage machine, fill the casings with the sausage mix. Make sure you extract any air and don’t overfill or they will split during the cooking process.

 

Preparation

Gently poach the sausages in lots of salted, boiling water, remove, strain and leave to cool. Store in the refrigerator until ready to be used in the cassoulet.

 

Stage 3

Preparing the Meats

 

The Pork

Ingredients:

4 carrots, peeled, chopped

3 brown onions, peeled, quartered

4 garlic cloves, peeled

1 celeriac, peeled, chopped

1 suede, peeled, quartered

2 pork trotters, blanched four times and scrubbed

2 pork hocks, blanched once

 

Method:

Fill a large stockpot with water, add salt, carrots, onions, garlic, celeriac, suede and the pork and bring to the boil.  Gently simmer, covered until meat is very soft. Remove meat, set aside to cool, de-bone and store the meat in large chunks in the refrigerator.

 

The Sausage

Remove the sausage from the fridge and gently fry in duck fat until brown. Strain, and reserve fat for later use in the cassoulet. Cool and slice the sausage and put back into the refrigerator.

 


 

 

Stage 4

D - Day

 

Ingredients:

800g haricot beans

300g bacon rind

300g thick mutton ribs

500g breast of lamb

 

4 brown onions

2 carrots

1 bouquet garni (Thyme, bay leaf, rosemary and marjoram in a muslin bag)

1 sprig of savoury

150g fat bacon

8 garlic cloves

3 ripe tomatoes

200g duck or goose fat (use the fat from the duck confit)

Salt and black pepper to taste

Toulouse sausage

10 pieces of duck confit

Meat from the pork trotters and hocks, cut into manageable pieces

7 tbs bread crumbs

 

Method:

Put the beans in cold water and boil for 20 minutes, then drain. Put the beans on again in plenty of cold water.

 

Now add the bacon rind, mutton and lamb to the beans. Peel the onions, cut one into quarters and chop up the others. Peel and quarter the carrots. Put the onion quarters, carrots, bouquet garni and savoury in with the beans and bring everything to the boil. Finely chop the bacon and 5 cloves of garlic and add to the stock. Cover and cook on very low heat for 120 minutes.

 

Peel and remove the seeds from the tomatoes. Heat up the goose or duck fat and brown the chopped onions in it. Add the remaining garlic and the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Pour in 2 cups of the bean stock and cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

 

Remove the meat from the stock and cut it into slices. Put half the bean mixture in a large, ovenproof earthenware dish. Arrange the pieces of Confit, the sliced meats and the sausage on the beans and cover with the remaining bean mixture. Pour over the tomato mixture and 1 cup of the bean stock. Check and adjust seasoning. Top with the melted duck or goose fat used to cook the sausage. Bake in the oven at 160ºC for 90 minutes, adding some more bean stock after 45 minutes, if necessary.  Once a crust forms on top of the cassoulet, break it in regular intervals. Remove from the oven and top with breadcrumbs and cover with a lid. Put pot into a very hot baker’s oven for 30 minutes.  Serve in the earthenware dish.