‘There is no dish in the Southwest of France more iconic, cherished, and controversial than the cassoulet. Not only is it the best pork and beans dish you can imagine, but it’s also a definitive dish of French country cooking — one that, to this day as you noted, stirs up fierce debate over what makes it authentic! When most travelers go on a trip to France, they bring back photos, or maybe a copper pot; some even smuggle a Camembert or saucisson in their luggage. Me? I bring back recipes.’ A friend once wrote this to me after I shared my recipe for cassoulet with him. It really encapsulated how I felt.
Cassoulet is one of those iconic dishes from my heritage that I need to cook at least once a year. I make it almost exclusively in the coldest months of the year when I need comfort most. It is the perfect hearty peasant dish that Julia Child once wrote: ‘is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.’
Cassoulet has been thought to have Moorish roots, though no one is certain. The name comes from cassole, the partially glazed earthenware dish that it is traditionally cooked in. People will argue about what makes an authentic cassoulet as much as they do about what makes a real bouillabaisse. Aficionados of “le cassoulet” will no doubt be angered by my choice of using white kidney beans. Although purists will howl, make this in your own fashion.
An Ode to Cassoulet
I sit quietly at my late father’s weathered dinner table carefully studying its ancient face. How many old family stories are sheathed deep within the old knife grooves and nicks that scar the surface. A thousand tales could be told if only my father’s table could speak.
A slightly cracked clay cassolle sits on an iron trivet in the center of my table. It is filled with a slightly bubbling mixture of preserved duck, pork shoulder, lamb ribs, and beans covered by a golden hue of crunchy duck fat-laden breadcrumbs. It rests, radiating conviviality and fraternity. The cassolle reminds me of the movie ‘The Red Violin’. I wonder how many cassoulets have been cooked in it since it was made over 80 years ago by potters in Toulouse.
My stomach feels empty. Empty is not quite the right word; it feels almost hollow as it growls in anticipation for my family to join me. As I crack through the crust, a puff of porky steam rushes upward towards the heavens. I hope the smells reach my father wherever he may be. A flood of pure joy fills my heart.
Cassoulet in 3 Acts
All the ingredients for a good cassoulet can be found in most grocery stores. Purists will argue that you need to find real tarbais beans but I have found white kidney beans work just as well. They will mention that there are 3 versions of true cassoulets (Castelnaudary, Carcassone, and Toulouse). Castlenaudary is the simplest and purest in flavor, made with beans, fresh pork, ham, sausages, and fried pork skins. Carcassonne adds lamb to Castlenaudary’s version and sometimes partridges. Toulouse’s version contributes lamb, bacon, sausage, and goose confit to the mix.
My version is far less complicated but will taste as good as any other cassoulet you are likely to encounter, even in France. Cassoulet is made in 3 acts; the beans, the lamb stew, and the confit. All are easily accomplished in a short amount of actual physical prep time sandwiched by long, slow cooking periods so prepare for that. I would even say get everything ready one day then cook the whole ensemble the next. Dishes like this profit by taking your time.
Cassoulet is an easy but time-consuming dish to cook. Look upon it as a delicious culinary project.
A classic French peasant dish of mixed meat and beans.
Cooking the Beans
- 1 pound dried white beans, see notes
- 1 whole onion peeled then studded with 6 cloves
- 2 strips of bacon or a 6 ounces piece of pork skin
- 2 carrots peeled
- 2 ribs celery
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig thyme
- cold water
- 2 ounces duck, goose, or pork fat
- 1.5 pounds of lamb shoulder trimmed of excess fat and cut into 2” cubes
- 1.5 pounds of country pork ribs or pork shoulder trimmed of excess fat and cut into 2” cubes
- salt/pepper/herbes de Provence (yeah shoot me herbes de Provence is my go-to herb mix)
- 2 sweet onions chopped fine
- 3 garlic cloves mashed coarsely
- 1 pound tomatoes chopped
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 quart chicken stock (or duck, pork, goose)
Confit and Sausages
- 4 duck legs cooked confit style (click here for the recipe or buy already made)
- 1 pound fresh pork sausages and/or 1 pound kielbasa, see notes
- 4 ounces breadcrumbs or panko
- To cook the beans, in a large bowl, soak the beans overnight with a generous amount of cold water to cover.
- Drain the beans and place them in a large Dutch oven with the whole onion, bacon, carrots, celery, and herbs. Cover by 2 inches with water and bring to a rapid boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the beans are tender, usually about 1–1/2 to 2 hours. Place a fine-mesh strainer over a large bowl. Drain the beans, saving the liquid and vegetables.
- To cook the lamb stew, liberally season the meat with salt, pepper, and herbs. Heat the fat in the Dutch oven until smoking hot over high heat. Working in batches, brown the lamb and the pork on all sides, about 10 minutes per batch. Reserve the browned meat.
- Add the diced onions and garlic to the pot and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook for 5 minutes more. Return the meat to the pot, pour in the white wine and stock, and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 2 hours. Drain, reserving both the meat and cooking liquid.
- Preheat the oven to 400°F.
- In the same Dutch oven, spoon half the beans in the bottom of the pan. Arrange the duck, pork, lamb, and sausage over the beans. Top with the remaining beans. Pour in the reserved cooking liquid. The beans should be just covered with liquid. Save any remaining liquid in case your beans start to dry out in the oven. Sprinkle half the breadcrumbs over the top and bake for two hours. Sprinkle with half the remaining panko, and bake until brown and bubbly, about 20 minutes longer.
- Serve from the pot, making sure each diner gets some of everything.
The best beans for cassoulet (or anything else) in America come from a small company in California called Rancho Gordo. Buy them directly If your local store does not sell them.
If you are using raw pork sausages: add the sausages to your simmering beans in the last 10 minutes of cooking to pre-cook them a bit.