Bonjour mes amis. It’s Mandy here today. There’s a reason that I’ve schedule this post for a Friday. Cassoulet, the iconic French dish, is one of those classics that is made for the weekend, especially when there’s a nip in the air and all that will do is something rich and comforting, a dish that can’t be rushed and where the pleasure of cooking it from scratch derives from the time and effort required.
Everyone who has travelled to France and sampled it has had their ‘cassoulet’ moment and can tell you about it in great detail. I was fortunate enough to have had mine in the heart of cassoulet territory, in the Languedoc region, a little medieval town called Caunes-Minervois. In the centre of town is the Hotel d’Alibert, totally un-fancy and time-warpish and utterly charming because of it, set in an historic Renaissance building with ancient wells dating to 1561. John Cleese and chef Rick Stein are amongst the fans of its cassoulet (plus the owner is something of a French Basil Fawlty, which makes eating here even more of an experience). I’ve been back twice, once for work where I ate my first cassoulet with photographer Jac de Villiers and the acclaimed novelist Christopher Hope (sorry to sound braggy, but it was an amazing day), and then again a few years later with my family. I have a deeply rooted longing to head to Caunes-Minervois again, definitely when the baby is a little older. Anyway, we tried almost everything on the menu, but of course it was the cassoulet that stood out. Cassoulet devotees do not deviate from their tried and tested recipes, everyone has a method, and there are small tweaks, additions and omissions from village to village and kitchen to kitchen, but this is my version made with what’s available locally, and I think it’s rather good. A cassoulet gets its name from the traditional vessel that it’s made in, but I always make mine in my Le Creuset casserole pot. Use any heavy based casserole pot that can go into the oven. It keeps really well and as with most stews, is more yummy the next day, so make more than you think you’ll eat. Basically always err on the side of greed, and you’ll be happy.
A Sort-Of Authentic Cassoulet
• 140g pork rind and 140g lardons (which is really just fatty bacon, chopped into little cubes. Double up on the bacon lardons if you can’t find pork rind)
• 4 tablespoons goose or duck fat (Woolies often have this). You can substitute with olive oil if all else fails
• 1kg dried white haricot beans (if you can’t find them, speckled cannellini are fine too), soaked in cold water overnight and then drained very well
• Between 8 to 12 garlic cloves, smashed with the flat side of a knife
• 1 large onion, diced
• A large stick of celery, chopped
• A large carrot, chopped
• 2 bay leaves
• A large sprig of thyme or bouquet garni
• One can of whole peeled or chopped tomatoes or 8 skinned, quartered plum tomatoes (I prefer fresh as I don’t like cassoulet too tomatoey, and in France it’s hardly ever made with tomatoes anyway)
• 500g good quality charcuterie Toulouse (or other speciality) sausages (delis like Giovanni’s in Cape Town have Toulouse-style sausages, made locally). Woolworths does a sage and pork banger which can work. If you use beef sausage, do not go for boerewors or burger flavoured versions as it’ll overwhelm the dish. Either a plain or herby beef sausage is best
• 4-6 confit duck legs (which are cooked then preserved in fat, available in cans from delis). But I also sometimes use fresh duck, which I cook using this method)
• Fresh breadcrumbs
• Handful of chopped parsley
• Salt and pepper to taste (not too much pepper)
• Optional: a little chicken or beef stock, incase it gets too dry during the cooking process
• Chop the pork rind and cube bacon into lardons
• Depending on which sausage you use and find, leave them whole (banger shapes), cut into chunky portions or slice into 1cm-thick pieces. It’s really your call.
• Tip your soaked, drained beans into a large pot, add the bacon and pork and cover with cold water. Blanch for around 20 minutes, then discard the cooking water.
• Melt the goose fat (or heat the olive oil, whichever you’re using) and add chopped celery, carrot, onion and squished garlic, sweating these for around five minutes.
• Add the tomatoes and bouquet garni and a pinch of sugar, and let it all caramelise a bit. Add the beans, sausages, pork rind and lardons and pour in 1.2 litres of water.
• Bring to the boil, sieve off any of that bubbly scum that forms on top, add salt and pepper.
• Transfer the casserole pot to the oven, season a wee bit with salt and a grind of pepper, and cook uncovered for around two to three hours. Stir on occasion. You want the beans to be all melty and soft and creamy (but still have their shape), and the texture to be liquid but not wet, if that makes sense. Add a little stock if it’s looking too dry, but not too much as you want it moist but not swimming in gravy.
• Remove the cassoulet from the oven, put the duck confit (or the homemade confit duck pieces) in the beans, drizzle with more olive oil or a few spoons of duck or goose fat, sprinkle the breadcrumbs, and return to the oven for another two hours or so. You’ll want to taste to see if you need anymore seasoning here.
• Once it’s all done, serve with chopped parsley. Bowls are best to enjoy it in all its stewy goodness, with some rustic bread (carbs are always welcome on the French table) and a vinaigrette-dressed green salad to cut through the sharpness.