I am a big believer in cultural immersion. When in Rome (pun intended) my family and I eschew the minibar-heavy tourist hotels for a down-at-heel Italian hotel in the Trastevere where we can rent their attached apartment and play at being locals: load shopping bags into the rickety freight elevator; keep milk in the fridge; go out for local Chinese takeway instead of standard Roman fare.
So it was that when we were planning a neighborhood dinner party recently and started to gravitate towards a classically French cassoulet, we decided to go immersive. No starters. No desserts. Just cassoulet – which supposedly cooks for half a day – with crumbly French baguettes. Then four French cheeses (one for beginners, one hard, one soft, one stinky) served with a simple green salad. A crisp grower champagne to start. And – what else – a perfectly pitched red Burgundy for the main event. Okay, maybe a few of those.
The end result was….perfect. I could taste the duck fat and the influence of the cast iron pot and the combination transported me to another time: Sitting in a primitive dining room in the countryside of France with my ancient grandmere padding about in the austere and well worn kitchen. The pungent odor of ripe cheese drifting over to me and beckoning, begging not to be left until after dinner. The neighbors coming over with unmarked bottles of wine in their well-worn shopping bags and everyone hugging, kissing and warming themselves by the fire until dinner began.
Yeah, that’s never happened to me. Our neighbors live in New Orleans, our wine is labeled and we don’t have a fireplace. Plus I put the cheese in the other room so my greedy friends wouldn’t eat it all before dinner. But anyway one bite of this cassoulet and I was transported to someone else’s memories….which was a very, very nice place to be.
The recipe we used was based around a Raymond Blanc find but it is modified and improved: for local ingredients, for balance between beans (the main event) and everything else, and for technique. It did indeed take a half of a day to prepare but it was worth every minute. It was actually really easy — ther are no complicated steps, no French mother sauces to master. It just takes time. Overnight to soak the beans, two hours for the first half of cooking, another two hours for the second half. And there is no rushing it. No appropriate substitutions for anything. It is something to be savoured, not rushed. Open an extra bottle of wine (you wouldn’t want to serve your guests something you wouldn’t spend the afternoon drinking yourself, would you?) and be where you are. Or whereever you’d like to be.
- 1 lb (450g) uncut bacon (go to the butcher's counter for this)
- 1 lb (450g) andouille
- 1 bag (800-900g) dried haricot, cannellini or navy beans soaked overnight
- 2 celery stalks
- 1 medium white onion, rough cut
- 2 large carrots, rough cut
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled left whole
- 3 plum tomatoes, cut into eighths
- 40g duck or goose fat
- 1 bouquet garni
- 2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 clove, lightly crushed
- 3 tsp lemon juice
- 8 confit duck legs
- 100 grams bread crumbs
- 80g duck fat
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Drain the beans that have been soaking overnight, discarding the soaking water, and tip them into a large dutch oven (or other ovenproof pot). Cut the bacon into lardons and add to the beans. Cover with cold water. Bring to a boil for 15-20 minutes then drain the beans and lardons in a colander in the sink discarding the cooking water.
- Heat the oven to 120C / 250F.
- Return the dutch oven to the stove top over medium-low heat. Add the duck / goose fat and sweat the celery, onion, carrot and garlic for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and bouquet garni and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the sausage, beans, and lardons and pour in 1.2 litres/2 pints water or just enough to barely cover. Bring to a boil, skim off the scum, then add the salt, pepper, clove and lemon juice.
- Move the pot to the oven and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours, stirring once, half-way through. After two hours the beans will be soft and creamy in texture and some of the water will have evaporated and the liquid will have thickened. If this is not the case then add another 30 minutes.
- Remove the pot from the oven. Bury the duck legs in the beans and sprinkle over the duck fat, breadcrumbs and garlic. Return it to the oven and cook for a further 2 hours.
- Serve in a flat bowl with each person receiving one duck leg and a large serving of the beans and vegetables. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve with a rustic French red wine - preferably a Red Burgudy.
- This is a LARGE recipe that serves 8 hungry people and leaves plenty of beans for leftovers. You might need to split the ingredients into two dutch ovens or pots for cooking and if so just make a second bouquet garni. For 4 people, just cut everything in half - but use the full bouquet garni.