Cassoulet is one of those fabulous preserved meats and dried beans recipes that exist all over Europe and the new world. This is a favourite of mine, matched only by Cocido Madrileño. The various styles of cassoulet are all fabulous. Toulouse's normally has a crust of breadcrumbs, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary never does, and that of Carcassone also has mutton or lamb. This way of cooking is very rewarding - very little effort for tremendous results. The alchemy of the beans and the other ingredients starts at the beginning - that wonderful clink of the dried beans hitting the bottom of a clean bowl and the cascading cold water over them, all white and pure. A little moment of delicious beginnings, of hope, of imagining everyone sitting at the table, laughing, drinking and eating.
Here is my recipe for the Toulouse-style cassoulet, which I have taken from Elisabeth David and adapted slightly. Serves 4-6.
White beans (dried: use haricot, but other shite beans work too), about 1lb.
herbs for bouquet garni (usually bay, parsley, sage and thyme, but rosemary works well also)
salt pork or unsmoked gammon (about 2lb)
4 to 6 duck legs as confit (or fresh duck legs: see below)
(if making your own duck confit, you will also need about 2 pints of duck fat)
4-6 raw Toulouse sausages, or high-grade raw sausage (must be pork)
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
2-3 fresh ripe tomatoes
Take the white beans and soak overnight in unsalted cold water.
Drain the beans the next morning and simmer gently in unsalted water with a bouquet garni (a tied-up bundle) of parsley, bay leaf, sage and thyme, for about an hour or until they begin to soften (they do not need to be completely cooked).
If you do not have duck confit (i.e. you only have fresh duck legs):
Meanwhile, as the beans are cooking, if you do no have confit of duck, make your own as follows:
generously salt the duck legs and leave to stand in a cool place for about 2 hours
brush off some of the salt and place in an oven-proof dish
cover completely with duck or goose fat
place in oven, at about 100 centigrade or 250 Fahrenheit for two hours
allow to cool
If you do have confit, then proceed to next step below:
About 5 hours before your guests arrive, rub the inside of a wide and deep oven-proof dish (terracotta is best) with a cut clove of garlic.
Then take about half of the part-cooked beans (drained) and place in the bottom;
Add the onion in slices, the tomatoes in pieces (and all their juice) and the peeled cloves of remaining garlic;
Now arrange the salt pork (cut into big chunks) and confit on top, scraping off as much fat from the confit as possible.
Top with the remaining beans.
Now top up with water so that everything is covered (you can keep topping it up during cooking if necessary)
You can use a dry white wine if you wish, but I think water is best.
Cook for about 4 hours on a lowish heat (about 140 centigrade) uncovered. press the crust the forms down every so often.
One hour before serving, add the uncooked sausages and stir into the pot.
Now add the breadcrumbs (sufficient to cover everything).
Cook on a slightly higher heat for another hour.
Serve on its own or with cooked green beans as an accompaniment (in France I gather it comes on its own).
What is so interesting about this dish is its effect on the eater. The experience of eating it is wonderful, but it does sit heavily: that fat (which is actually good for you - in the SW of France where this comes from, heart disease is at its lowest, and they use duck or goose fat in everything) weighs heavy indeed, and the beans sit like a brick in the stomach. You will feel laid low for several days - slow, sluggish, over-burdened with food. But you will also feel contented, pleasantly dulled to the hubbub of the outside.
Plan it like this - eat it at the beginning of a long week when you do not have to go into work. It will de-stress you, make you take things slower, require you to sleep more and bring you out to the other side full of the bliss of real rest.
There is an extraordinary humanity in this food, an analogue to the care taken in French society to look after its workers, its families; one of the best health systems in the world, undoubtedly the best educational system in the world and food that, were it available as a weapon, would sweep Bush and all his kind aside in a slow and warm wave of fat....
Cassoulet on the National Health - that is my deepest hope.
Cassoulet as a weapon of mass destruction? Oui oui, si vous plait.