You Call This Cassoulet?
October 18, 2015
The first cassoulet I ever made was to the exact specifications of Julia Child's recipe in Volume One of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It was a two- or three-day project involving pork loin, homemade sausages, duck confit—and who knows what-all else. The recipe made enough for ten people.
When you remember that cassoulet is essentially a dish developed in Southwestern France as a way to use the duck confit that all housewives had on hand, you can see the dish in a less precious way. It should contain good beans and several kinds of protein. Since the meats are all cooked before being layered with the beans, this is a great way to use leftover lamb and poultry (duck and goose are both traditional, but chicken is also possible). Nicely flavoured sausage is essential, but it can be link sausage (smoked, dried, or fresh) or bulk sausage. And don't forget the garlic!
For my own needs on this first very cold weekend, I wanted a sort-of-cassoulet dish that I could throw together using what was on hand, and I definitely had no plans to spend three days preparing it. Besides, it was to be for just the two of us (though from the beginning it was clear that it would last through several meals).
Beans I had on hand: four cups of Romano beans that I had cooked and frozen several months before. One could use canned beans here as well (two cans, drained and rinsed).
I also took from the freezer two cups of homemade chicken stock (boxed or canned would be fine, preferably salt-free).
For meat my first choice was a couple of nice sausages from Sorella on Dundas St. West; these were in our freezer stash. Then I found a container of frozen cooked sausage meat left from some fancy recipe I'd made last winter; time to use this up. There was also some cooked duck breast left from a real cassoulet I'd made for a party last February. (All right, I'll admit it: I'd forgotten to put it into the cassoulet—but no one noticed. And now I could reap the benefits.)
Earlier this week I had served rack of lamb and there was a four-rib section of that in the refrigerator that would add the requisite lamb flavour to today's cassoulet. (I reserved the meaty loin part for another meal, but used the bones.)
Preparation looked like this: I heated the stock in a medium-sized saucepan along with half a cup of tomato puree, the lamb bones, three minced cloves of garlic, two bay leaves, a cup of white wine, half a teaspoon of thyme, and some ground pepper. When it came to a boil I turned the heat down and simmered the mixture for half an hour. While it cooked I sliced the two sausages and fried them gently, cut up the pieces of duck breast, and chopped three additional cloves of garlic. Then I removed the bones and the bay leaves from the stock and scraped and cut any remaining meat from the lamb rib bones.
Ready to assemble: I turned the oven to 375 degrees. I knew these ad hoc ingredients were going to fill a large-ish casserole dish, so I used a 9x13 oven-proof baking dish. From now on it was just a question of layering, alternating beans with meat and sprinkling the extra garlic around. I poured the stock over everything until the meat and beans were covered.
I mixed a cup of fine bread crumbs with a couple tablespoons of olive oil (it could have been melted duck fat or pork fat if I'd had them on hand) and sprinkled the crumbs over the top. I set the casserole dish on a large cookie sheet (just in case it spilled over) and put the whole thing into the oven, turning the oven down to 350 after fifteen minutes. I let it cook for about two hours in order to reduce the liquid a bit.
It might not have been "authentic" by anyone's measure, but the cassoulet was delicious. And predictably it was way, way, way too much for two people. Now I have to figure out what to do when using up leftovers leads to more leftovers.