Cassoulet first made a big impression on me many years ago during a romantic dinner with my husband at La Poule Au Pot, a French restaurant in London. Set in Pimlico on a little square, the candle-lit tables are perfect if you're looking to be transported to France without taking the Eurostar. Thick-accented waiters brought hot plates of garlicky, buttery escargot that started my love affair with the snail. To follow, we split a bubbling bowl of French baked beans with melt in your mouth goose, pork and sausages and then sopped up all the juices with crusty french bread- this cassoulet had me hooked.
After many of my trips to France, it's clear that this country dish is made an infinite number of ways based on local traditions, family traditions and personal preference. Julia Child, who included a recipe for cassoulet in her first volume, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" researched all different types of beans and meats only to be told by her French co-author that her efforts were not French.
Having said that, I felt a little pressure lifted from my shoulders. I wanted my version to be as authentic as possible, but easy enough to make in one day or make ahead. Julia suggests that you can prepare it in one day, but "two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking are much easier." Her recipe calls for dry beans and homemade sausage cakes, neither of which have made it to my version.
The types of meat that are included in a cassoulet is also widely debated, but can include any of the following: goose, duck, game, pork, sausage, lamb and mutton. I've played around with this recipe and decided to use Andouille sausages, duck confit and pork loin. I've added lamb in the past and you can as well, but you can omit it and add more pork if it's easier. I also use canned cannellini beans which takes out the time consuming soaking and cooking process.
To serve this, I make a bistro salad with a zingy mustard vinaigrette and oven-hot French baguettes. The salad does wonders to cut through the richness of the cassoulet.
Last weekend, I made this for our friends Alethea and Philippe and finished the meal with Ina Garten's French Apple Tart for the full on effect. This is perfect for a dinner party in the middle of winter. I served this last year to our friends Karyn and Nick while we polished off several bottles of red wine.
This quick version does not take long at all to put together, and you can bake it ahead, even the day before. You heat it back up in the oven and then top it with breadcrumbs to make the crusty topping.
I would suggest you get your meat from a local butcher- my thick cut bacon, duck confit, Andouille sausages, pork and lamb were all bought from the guys at Paulina and were amazing.
I always call ahead to see if they have duck confit, which they have frozen. If you can't find duck confit, you can omit it, but they add an extra depth to the dish and the meat is so tender it literally falls off the bones.
Use sausages that are available to you- I love the taste of Andouille, but you can use Toulouse sausages if you can get them or hot Italian or plain pork- whatever you like.
Controversially, I sprinkle gremolata on the top of this - it's something that I like on the top of many hot casseroles as it adds a little freshness and depth of flavor to it. It's Italian, so don't tell the French.
Adapted from Small Parties by Marguerite Marceau Henderson
1/4 pound thick-cut bacon, diced
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced into half moons
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried thyme
2 bay leaves
1 pound boneless pork loin, cut into 1- inch cubes
1 pound boneless lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
4 links of Andouille sausages, cut into 1- inch pieces
2 legs duck confit
1 x 6 oz can of tomato paste
2 cups beef broth
1 cup water
4 x 15 oz cans white beans (great Northern beans or cannellini), not drained*
1/4 cup brandy or cognac
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
For the topping:
2 cups of fresh bread crumbs from a French loaf
4 tbsp melted butter
For the gremolata:
handful of parsley leaves, chopped
zest of 1 lemon
1 garlic clove, minced
*I don't drain the beans until I'm ready to use them- depending on the size of your pot, the liquid in this might come to the top. I add the beans at the end and if I need extra liquid, I drain a few cans and then add one or two with the bean liquid.
Preheat the oven to 350F or 200C. Start with a large, heavy, oven-proof dish with a lid and put it on the stove-top over a medium-high heat. I love this earthenware pot I got in London at Gill Wing- it's perfect for stovetop and in the oven.
Saute the bacon in the olive oil for 3-4 minutes and, then add the onion for another 2 minutes, stirring often.
Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaves, pork, lamb and sausage, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally to brown the meat on all sides. Add the duck confit at this point along with the tomato paste, beef broth, water, beans, brandy, salt and pepper. Stir and bring to a bubble, then cover.
Cook in the oven for one hour. You can make it ahead up to this point.
If I'm serving it that day, I do all this in the morning and then put it on the stovetop. If it's the day ahead, I put it in the refrigerator and bring it out an hour or so before I want to put it in the oven again.
When you're getting ready to serve, put it into the oven, covered, again at 350F, for about 15 minutes. I always reserve a little of the beef broth just in case the mixture has dried out too much at this point.
Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs and the melted butter in a bowl.
After the 15 minutes is up and it's nice and bubbly, pull it out of the oven and remove the bay leaves and sprinkle the crumb mixture on top.
Bake, uncovered for about 10 minutes until the crumbs have browned lightly. You may need to keep an eye on it at this point.
Sprinkle with the gremolata and serve.
French Bistro Salad
Adapted from Jamie's Kitchen by Jamie Oliver
2 shallots, peeled and finely sliced
white wine vinear
2 bunches of lettuce- frisee, gem, or other green leafy leaves
leaves from one chicory bulb
1 bunch of fresh chives, left whole, not chopped
1 handful of chervile, leaves picked
2 handfuls of fine french green beans
for the dressing:
1 tbsp dijon mustard
1 cloe garlic, peeled and finely chopped
9 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the shallots in a small dish and cover them with the white wine vinegar- leave for about 10 minutes.
Wash your lettuce, chervil and chives and spin dry. Remove the chicory leaves and place them all in a bowl.
Cook your green beans in salted boiling water until tender, but not limp. Drain and cool. Leave these out and serve them room temp. Add them to the salad bowl.
Remove the shallots and add them to the bowl. Put 4 tbsp of the remaining vinegar in a bowl, add the mustard, garlic and a pinch of salt. Whisk in the oil until it emulsifies, taste and season with salt and pepper.
I like to make this in an old jam jar instead of whisking- I just shake up everything except the oil and at it a little at a time, shaking as I go. If you've got leftovers, this will keep in the fridge for about a week.
Dress the salad and serve.