Let me start by making it clear that this is Not Cassoulet.
The New York Times published a recipe for Cassoulet the other day, which I read as I settled into staying safely in and watching the Blizzard of ’16 drop more than 2 feet of snow outside my window. The recipe was all about cassoulet as made by a Great Chef, simmering dry-rubbed duck in fat to make confit immediately before cooking it with the right sausage in the right beans with the right seasoning, the whole thing being a marvel of complexity. As befits one of the Great Dishes of French Cuisine.
Now, don’t get me wrong – prepared that way it truly is a marvel. If you have a chance to eat cassoulet made by a great chef (or better still, in an auberge in the Languedoc region of France, where the dish originated) seize the opportunity and savor it. If you ever have a day to spend fiddling – and a quart of duck fat sitting around – have at the recipe.
But… Cassoulet is named for the earthenware pot it was traditionally cooked in, which translates as – wait for this – casserole. It was not created in the extensive kitchens of the Great Chefs who developed the Classic Cuisine of France, but at the hearths of thousands of Bonnes Femmes – homemakers – in rural Southern France, on cold winter days when they did not have access to the bounty of fresh produce they loved to cook.
On a cold blustery day, a bonne femme would come into her kitchen and stir up the fire. She’d want it burning well all day, in this weather… There were already a few scoops of white beans soaking in water, so she freshened them and put them to simmer. But what would she cook with them? She pulled her shawl snug and went to the cold larder, where she used a long fork to pull some poultry (duck or goose, usually, chicken was expensive) out of a crock of cooked meat carefully covered with fat to preserve it (confit – before vacuum sealing) and took down a link or two of smoked sausage, or perhaps cut a slice of dry cured ham. These weren’t Gourmet Ingredients – they were the way to keep meat all winter. Cooking them with beans would both flavor the beans and stretch the meat. She continued into the root cellar for onions, garlic, and a few turnips or celery roots. And there you have the foundation of the classic cassoulet – at the hands of a prudent homemaker who Planned For Meals.
Well. I’m not a 19th Century French farmwoman. I preserve my meat in a freezer, not a crock of seasoned duck fat – though I thank all my foremothers who found such astonishingly delicious solutions to that problem. (What would the world be without sausage, confit, corned beef, country ham, prosciutto, and others?) Rich did mention my elegant technique of standing at the fridge muttering to myself… as generations of women have done in larders, smokehouses, and pantries. (Well – maybe they didn’t all mutter…)
I actually cooked this Sunday, the day after the blizzard, when I’d had a chance to think about it. But I did not prudently put the beans to soak the night before… You can get around this by just cooking them longer at higher heat, but I don’t think that works quite as well – they don’t always cook quite evenly. I like the trick of bringing them to a boil, then removing from heat and soaking at least an hour. I find this give a better, more even texture. I set that up after breakfast – a pound (two and a half cups) of Great Northern beans, in a quart of water. (And you can see that most of the water is absorbed, and the beans have nearly doubled, after that treatment.)
So then … what was in my
larder freezer? Ham, and some already cooked chicken thighs, so I took them out to thaw. And bacon… Part of the richness of the cassoulet comes from the fat in that confit, and the sausage, and sometimes bacon or salt pork… Then I checked the cellar vegetable crisper – for a change, no turnips or parsnips… but there were carrots, and sauteed celery in the freezer. And onions and garlic in a hanging basket. And I do have sprigs of dried rosemary and thyme from last summer. All right, then! (I certainly wasn’t going out in all that snow to get anything… and why would I?)
When I went into the kitchen to start lunch, I chopped the bacon, and set it in a heavy pan over a very low flame, to render out the fat. And I put another quart of water in the beans, and a light under them. (And I heated our lunch – this doesn’t all take much time if I’m in the kitchen anyway – as the bonne femme would have been.) Then I chopped an onion, peeled a whole head of garlic (but didn’t cut it) and put both aside. When I went back after lunch, I put the onion in the pan with the bacon, keeping the light very low. If I’d had fresh celery, I would have added that, too – mine was already sauteed, so I held it until later.
While the onion cooked, I chopped the carrots, and added them, the whole, peeled garlic cloves, and sprigs of rosemary and thyme to the bean pot. Then everything kept simmering and softening for about half an hour – maybe more? (with a close eye on the onion – I didn’t want it to really brown.)
At this point, almost everything went in the pot. Ham and chicken, onions in bacon with all the lovely flavorful rendered fat, sauteed celery, all simmered together with a lid half covering it until the beans were thoroughly cooked, but not falling apart. This is not a soup, or even stew, so no more water, but I did keep a close eye on it to make sure it didn’t dry out – and the simmer was as slow as I could get it. (At this point, if it makes sense for you, you could move an oven proof pot into a slow oven, and it will take less watching. There’s a reason that’s the classic method!) The very low heat also allows the beans to soften completely without getting mushy.
When the beans were cooked, I let it cool a bit, fished out the sprigs of herbs (the twigs, actually…) Then noticing that it needed some more vegetable, I chopped 2 cups of cabbage, added that, and simmered until it was cooked. Added a little salt (taste – how much you need to add will depend on how salty your ham and bacon are.) And at any point during the process you can turn the heat off and let it sit a while to meld flavors, if it will be ready before you want it.
We just ate it as it was, at the time, and it was delicious, but I reheated it in the oven, to crisp the top a little, today for lunch (and pictures) Also delicious! You can finish it however you want. The meat practically melted into the beans – you hardly see it, but you certainly taste it… And the same with the garlic. (I have to use that method with garlic in beans more – the fragrance and flavor were amazing!)
It’s Not Cassoulet. But – it is in that tradition, more than most people will admit. Don’t let Foodie Perfectionists scare you – most traditional recipes were developed in working kitchens by women with children to mind and clothing to mend and chickens to feed and housework to do… and half an eye on the simmering pot. This took all afternoon because I was snowed in, and it was easy to wander in and out of the kitchen, keeping everything over very low heat so I didn’t have to watch it carefully. I could have given it less time, and more attention – that’s the tradeoff. The time does pay off in depth of flavor, though, so someday when you’re hanging around the house anyway, go for it! (Or dump it all into a slow cooker… I would render out the bacon first, but even that is optional.)
And, you know – if you have some sausage, feel free to use it. Or a rutabaga. Or… whatever would be good melted into a pot of long cooked beans…
“In Languedoc, the way in which the cassoulet is made varies according to whoever is preparing it.” Larousse Gastronomique, ©1961.
Who am I to argue with Larousse Gastronomique?
- 1 lb. Great Northern Beans
- 3 oz. bacon
- 1 large onion
- 2 ribs celery
- 1 head garlic
- 3 carrots
- 1 sprig rosemary or 1/2 t dried
- 2 sprigs thyme or 1/2 t dried
- 6 oz dark meat chicken cooked
- 4 oz ham cooked
- 2 c chopped cabbage
- salt to taste
- Either soak beans overnight, or parboil, then soak them one hour, in one quart water.
- Place beans in pot with soaking water, and one more quart. Bring to a boil, then lower heat to a very slow simmer.
- Chop bacon, put it in a heavy, cold fry pan. Place pan over very low heat, and let bacon render out the fat - half an hour or more, over the lowest possible heat.
- Chop a large onion, add to the bacon, and stir. Dice celery, and add it, stir. Continue to let it cook over very low heat, to allow onion to soften, not brown.
- Add whole peeled garlic cloves, chopped carrot, and herbs to the pot of beans. Continue to cook at a very low simmer.
- After half an hour or so, mix all contents of frying pan - bacon and bacon fat, onion, and celery - into the pot of beans. Add chicken and ham. Continue cooking over very low heat.
- When beans are fully cooked (but not falling apart) remove from heat, let cool slightly (if time permits) to let the flavor meld. Remove any tough bits and twigs from the herbs.
- Return to heat, add cabbage, and salt to taste.
- Once cabbage is cooked, serve.