My Citizens, your well-connected gastronomic Suzerain – the mighty dynamo that is TFD! – is proud to count one of the world’s finest chefs and cookbook authors as His friend!
I speak of the unmatched Paula Wolfert, whose recipes inspired me as a youth to adopt the weighty crown of responsibility and guide the masses to culinary revolution!
In the early 80’s, her cookbook of the recipes of Southwest France was a tome I pored over in the depths of night after school, seeking to learn the subtle and ancient secrets of culinary excellence her words could impart!
Today, I am fortunate to count her as a friend and I am honored to share my favorite recipe of hers: the most authentic French Cassoulet!
Cassoulet, derives from the from Occitan language word “caçolet” is a rich, slow-cooked casserole containing meat (typically pork sausages, goose, duck and sometimes mutton), pork skin (couennes) and white beans (haricots blancs). The dish originated in the south of France. It is named after its traditional cooking vessel, the cassole, a deep, round, earthenware pot with slanting sides.
The traditional homeland of cassoulet is the region once known as the province of Languedoc, especially the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary, that claims to be where the dish originated. The brotherhood of Cassoulet “La Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary” has organized competitions and fairs about Cassoulet every year since 1999.
All cassoulets are made with white beans, duck or goose confit, sausages, and additional meat. In the cassoulet of Toulouse, the meats are pork and mutton, the latter frequently a cold roast shoulder. The Carcassonne version is similar but doubles the portion of mutton and sometimes replaces the duck with partridge. The cassoulet of Castelnaudary uses a duck confit instead of mutton.
In France, cassoulets of varying price and quality are also sold in cans and jars in supermarkets, grocery stores and charcuteries. The cheapest ones contain only beans, tomato sauce, sausages, and bacon. More expensive versions are likely to be cooked with goose fat and to include Toulouse sausages, lamb, goose, or duck confit.
As noted on the awesome website splendidtable.org:
No one has recorded a better version of this ultimate southwestern French dish, nor is it likely anyone ever will. Paula [Wolfert] learned it in the dining room of Pierrette Lejanou, a local Toulouse woman known to make the best. This is a three-day project, made more pleasurable if you can collaborate with a friend.
The biggest challenges lie in the shopping: in addition to Tarbais beans and duck confit, the dish contains six kinds of pork. It’s an ideal excuse to visit that new nose-to-tail butcher shop that just opened. The staff will be excited to hear you are tackling this and should have most items.
The cooking is relatively straightforward. On day one, you lightly cure the pork to enrich its taste. On day two, you make a dense ragout of onions, carrots, beans, and five of the six kinds of pork. The final day, you bake the ragout with the duck confit in a large pot (preferably a traditional clay cassole, see Notes), with the sausages nestled on top. I guarantee you will never forget the results.
Fresh pork skin and ham hock (not smoked or cured) are essential to enrich the beans; they can be hard to find but are worth the effort.
When Paula published this recipe in 1983, Tarbais beans weren’t available in the United States, but they are now and they are worth seeking out. Other white beans do not absorb as much flavor and cannot be cooked as long without collapsing.
Heirloom bean retailer Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food carries them, and recommends Ayocote Bianco beans as a substitute, as they are the Mexican beans from which the Tarbais were bred.
Paula devised this recipe to fit inside a clay cassoulet pot she purchased in France. Called a cassole, it is narrow at the bottom and broad at the rim, a shape that maximizes exposure of the ragout to the oven heat to ensure a better crust. You can buy a handmade cassole of the proper size here.
If you do not have a 5 ½- to 6-quart (5 ½- to 6-l) earthenware vessel (or ovenproof mixing bowl), you can divide the cassoulet into two smaller vessels before the final baking, or simply halve the recipe. If you choose the latter option, halve everything except the sausage amount, as you’ll want enough so that everyone gets at least half a link.
If you divide the full recipe between two smaller vessels, keep all of the quantities the same except for doubling the bread crumbs. You’ll want enough so that both vessels get a light sprinkling.
Timing Note: The cassoulet takes 3 days to cook. Allow at least 1 additional day (if not 1 week) to shop for the ingredients.
Citizens, this is a complex recipe to be sure – but not complicated once you assemble the right ingredients. Gird your culinary loins and do give this magnificent recipe a try – at least once! You are worth it! 🙂
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