Cassoulet

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This is not a low carb recipe. But it’s splendid and I couldn’t delete it. Just. Could. Not. When I’m in serious low carb mode, I have a low carb version, here.

Making this legendary southern French casserole is definitely a project, but please make it sometime…it’s glorious. Cassoulet takes its name from the earthenware casserole in which it was traditionally made. It was once a one-pot peasant meal made up of slow-simmered savory beans cooked with an assortment of whatever meats were on hand and topped with duck fat-infused bread crumbs. Julia Child has a very classic cassoulet recipe featuring goose, lamb, salt pork, and sausage. There are as many variations as there are cooks, and they are all the very definition of a rich, savory, winter meal.

My sweetie roasted two ducks on Thanksgiving because he knew I wanted to make cassoulet the following weekend. I had eaten it many times, but had never made it, and was eager to create a personal version. Since I had roasted duck legs on hand, and not duck confit, I sautéed the duck meat in duck fat at the end, to compensate. These types of recipes lend themselves to improvisation, and peasant fare is about using up leftovers, so everything turned out perfectly delicious.

A note on duck fat: Cooking with duck fat is dreamy. It clings to cooking foods smoothly. With a silky mouth feel, ability to brown foods deeply, and delicate savory flavor, duck fat is delicious when used to sauté potatoes and root vegetables or to baste poultry. It has a high smoke point, can be frozen virtually forever, and can be reused if strained through cheesecloth after each use. Duck fat is low in saturated fat (20% less than butter) and high in unsaturated fat, making it one of healthiest animal fats you can eat. It’s the cooking fat of choice in the southwest of France where the incidence of heart disease is about half that of the rest of France (and the rest of France already has less than half the heart disease of the United States), so it’s healthy *and* tasty. Can you tell I love to use it? Yes. I do.

But back to the cassoulet. Each step is easy, but the entire project is time consuming, so I decided to stretch everything out over several days. Each day’s steps flowed into and supported the next day’s, so it turned into easy fun. What better way to use a four-day Thanksgiving holiday?

Cassoulet
Yield: 6-8 servings

1 Muscovy duck, roasted (strain and save fat from pan; reserve giblets)

STOCK
1 duck carcass from a roasted duck (above)
1 carrot
1 stalk celery
1 cup tomatoes, chopped (canned is fine)
1 onion, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dried shiitake mushrooms
2 garlic cloves, smashed
2 branches of thyme and parsley and 2 bay leaves
10 whole peppercorns

BEANS & HAM HOCKS
1 lb. dried white beans (great northern or cannellini)
2 tablespoons duck fat
8 cloves garlic, smashed
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
8 cups duck stock (above)
2 large ham hocks

PORK STEW
1 lb. pork shoulder, cut into 1″cubes (I used a 1+ lb. pork shoulder chop)
1/2 cup duck fat
1/2 lb. pancetta, cubed (uncured, unsmoked bacon is considerably less expensive, and works fine)
8 cloves garlic, smashed
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
Bouquet Garni: 4 sprigs marjoram, 4 sprigs thyme, 3 bay leaves, tied together with string
1 cup tomatoes, chopped (canned is fine)
1 cup white wine
2 cups duck stock (above)
1 lb. delicate pork sausages (boudin blanc is classic, I used bockwurst)
Duck breasts and legs

CRUST
2—2-1/2 cups bread crumbs (I used Acme’s Pain au Levain, a sour dough wheat bread)
2 tablespoons duck fat
Salt and pepper

Note: This recipe, in its entirety, needs about a cup of duck fat and 10 cups of duck stock. If you’re buying these things or improvising, plan accordingly.

ASSEMBLY

DAY ONE (stock; bean soaking)

stock

1. Cut the roasted duck up, separating the legs and breast meat. Remove the skin. Refrigerate in a zip-lock bag.
2. Put the duck carcass in a large stock pot, cover with water, and bring to a boil. While waiting for the water to boil, roughly cut the carrot, celery, and onion and add to the water. Also add the tomatoes, dried mushrooms, garlic, herbs, peppercorns, and reserved giblets.
3. Once the water boils, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered for 6 or more hours. Top up the water, as needed, to keep the bones submerged.
4. Take the stock off the heat, pour it through a sieve to remove all the vegetables and meat, and refrigerate.
5. Soak the beans overnight in a 4-quart bowl in 7 1/2 cups of water.

DAY TWO (beans and ham hocks; bread crumbs prep)

beans

1. Pour off the soaking water and rinse the beans repeatedly. Heat 2 tablespoons duck fat in a large soup pot. Add the garlic, onions, and carrots and cook until lightly browned. Take the reserved stock out of the refrigerator, skim the fat off the top. Add the ham hocks and beans to the cooking vegetables, cover with the reserved duck stock (approx. 8 cups), and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are tender, about 1-1/2 hours. Your beans may take longer due to the type you use, their age, or your water, so be sure to sample-taste.

2. Remove the ham hocks, cool, and pull the meat off the bones, discarding the skin, bone, and gristle. Chop or shred and add back to the beans. Cool and refrigerate.

3. Cut the bread you’ll be using for bread crumbs into thick slices and leave out, allowing to turn dry and stale.

Try not to eat the beans today. I know. They smell beyond delicious. Practice iron-willed restraint.

DAY THREE (pork stew; cassoulet assembly)

stew

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of duck fat in a heavy 5-1/2-quart pot. Add the cubes of pork shoulder and brown. Add pancetta (or bacon) and cook until lightly browned. If using bacon, a wealth of fat will accumulate. Pour some off into a handy can. This will aid in browning the bacon. Add the garlic, onions, and carrots; cook until lightly browned. If you poured off too much fat, add a little back in. Add the tomatoes and bouquet garni to pan; cook until liquid reduces and thickens a bit. Add wine; reduce by half. Add broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook, uncovered, until the liquid has thickened, about 1 hour. Discard herbs; set stew aside.

2. Pre-heat oven to 300 degrees.

3. While the stew is simmering, remove the reserved duck meat from the refrigerator. Shred the leg meat and lightly salt; thinly slice the breast meat on the diagonal and reserve.

4. In a large skillet, brown the sausages, followed by the duck meat, in 4 tablespoons of duck fat. Remove the sausages, cool, and cut into 1/2″ slices. Add the sausages and shredded duck to the pork stew.

5. Add 1-2 tablespoons of duck fat to the skillet (if needed), and toss the bread crumbs. Add salt and pepper.

6. Remove the refrigerated beans, skim off the fat, and begin layering the cassoulet in a 5-1/2-quart enameled cast iron dutch oven. Visually divide the beans into three portions. Start with a layer of beans, then stew, then beans, then stew with the duck breast slices, and lastly, beans. Thoroughly cover with bread crumbs (that’s the “lid”), and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of melted duck fat. Bake, uncovered, for 3 hours. Half way through, rotate the dutch oven for even cooking, and also check the moisture level in the cassoulet. If it seems too dry, carefully add some stock to the edge of the pan. Try not to disturb the crust. After 3 hours, raise the oven temperature to 500 degrees and cook the cassoulet until its crust is golden.

***

So the cassoulet is in the oven. I’ve washed all the dishes and cleaned all the counters. I’m sitting in my kitchen table, nibbling some Thanksgiving leftovers. I’m thinking about the film “Babette’s Feast” and considering a glass of wine while surveying the kitchen and feeling that great sense of satisfaction that comes at the end of a large project.

Join me? ::clink::