The key to cassoulet is time. It’s something that can be shortened but it’s not recommended. It’s the long, slow cooking that really rounds the flavours and gives the beans the opportunity to absorb them gently without breaking. I always try to source the smallest white beans possible, as I find they have a thinner skin. Cannellini beans work, but haricots blanc are even better.
In this recipe, various sausages and cured meats have been used but these can be substituted with various smoked pork products. A pork hock could be simmered the day before and the stock used to cook the cassoulet. A simple smoked bacon can also be used, and smoked and spiced sausages. Smoked pork skin or bacon rind is also good. But it is worth remembering that this dish can work with a single cut of pork – say, a smoked pork belly – and be just as delicious.
Cassoulet originates in the province of Languedoc, in the central south of France. Like all good things French, it has a peasant heritage and duck fat is an important component. It’s a great base for the recipe. In the restaurant, we bone our ducks and take all the trimmings to simmer and render this duck fat. It keeps in the fridge almost indefinitely. As well as for cassoulet, it makes impossibly delicious roast potatoes. Or roast anything, for that matter: Brussels sprouts, Dutch carrots, parsnips, swede, turnips.
The other important element is what it is cooked in – my favourite pan is a 1960s cast-iron enamel pan. Like the most practical and trusted items in my scullery, it came from an op shop. It maintains good, even temperature and also forms a fabulous crust around the edges, which I scrape back. It is best cooked without fan force, as the fan tends to dry out the beans. If you only have a fan-forced oven, breadcrumbs can top the cassoulet to protect it as it cooks. The beans can be simmered on the stove before cooking. Again, the slower the better.
With cassoulet, there are no real rules, only guidelines. The variations are limitless – regional and practical.
Various vegetables can be added, especially tomatoes. I find too many tomatoes take the dish towards baked beans. I like to experiment with different meats. Lamb and mutton work well. Game birds such as partridge also work well. Or pheasant, for a more haute version.
2013 SC Pannell grenache shiraz touriga, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($28) – Leanne Altmann, sommelier, Supernormal
- 200g haricot beans
- 1 stick celery, finely diced
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- ½ onion, diced
- 8 slices pancetta, diced
- 150g kaiserfleisch, cut into 1cm cubes
- 1 tbsp duck fat (if available)
- 1 tbsp brandy
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- 1 clove
- pinch salt
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cups chicken stock
- 2 confit duck legs, cut in half
- 150g Lyonnaise sausage, cut into 5cm cubes
- 3 tbsp coarse breadcrumbs
- 1 tsp olive oil
- Soak the beans in plenty of water for at least 12 hours, or up to 48 hours.
- In a wide-based pot, gently fry the celery, garlic, onion, pancetta and kaiserfleisch in the duck fat.
- When the vegetables have softened, deglaze the pan with the brandy and stir through the spices and salt.
- Add the thyme, bay leaf, drained beans and chicken stock. If necessary, add some water so that there is enough liquid to just cover the beans.
- Simmer gently on the stove until the beans are half cooked. Pour the beans into an ovenproof dish and nestle the duck legs and Lyonnaise sausage into the beans. Cover the pot with aluminium foil and bake in the oven at 150ºC, until the beans are cooked through, about one to one-and-a-half hours. When the beans are almost cooked, remove the foil and cover the top with the coarse breadcrumbs and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Continue cooking, uncovered, until the bread is golden and the beans and meat are tender and delicious.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 20, 2015 as "Peasant and accounted for".
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