In southern France, cassoulet is a distinctive, beloved regional specialty that is now enjoyed throughout the country. It is a rich, hearty stew of various meats, white beans, fats, and aromatic vegetables and herbs, all simmered in layers, then topped with a fine golden crust.
The city of Castelnaudary is considered one of the three cities that originated cassoulet; the other two are Toulouse and Carcassonne. The Castelnaudary version is thought to be the oldest, dating from the Hundred Years’ War.
During my trip through southern France, we stopped for lunch at Castelnaudary so that we could taste an authentic cassoulet. The cassoulet was rich and flavorful, made with fatty ribbons of pork skin, chunks of pork shoulder, pork sausage in natural casing and saucisson à l’ail (garlic sausage), confit of duck, roast duck breast, white lingot beans, vegetables, and spices. I would have liked to try the Carcassonne version, where red partridge is used instead of the duck, but unfortunately it was not partridge season.
The ingredients are precooked in stages, separately, and then baked in layers in an earthenware “cassole.” The list of ingredients can easily include over 20 items. The result, of course, is a phenomenally flavorful meal, well worth the effort when made properly.
If you don’t have a cassole, don’t worry. A large cast iron Dutch oven or other similar cooking vessel is a perfectly acceptable substitute—though the oven temperature for cast iron cooking should be a little lower (300 F).
The following recipe came courtesy of the “concierge” of the building in Paris where I used to live; she was from a small village near Carcassonne and made cassoulet at least five times every winter.
- 1 pound dried white lingot beans
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon walnut oil
- 2 pounds pork shoulder, cut in pieces
- 3 pieces duck leg confit (leg and thigh, cut at the joint)
- 1 pound pork sausage in natural casing, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
- 1 pound saucisson à l’ail, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
- 4 onions, sliced
- 1 fennel bulb, trimmed and cut into 1-inch wide chunks
- 5 cloves garlic
- 2 bay leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon tomato puree
- 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon herbes de Provence
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1 cup dry red wine
- 2 cups chicken stock
- toasted bread crumbs
For the Stock
- 1 pound pork rinds with layer of fat
- 1/2 pound mix of yellow onion and carrot trimmings plus green part of 2 leeks washed well to remove any sand particles
- 2 1/2 pound pork bones
- 1 head garlic cut in half
- 2 whole cloves
- 1/2 pound strips of salty bacon
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Make stock from the stock ingredients listed above. Retain the pork rinds and bacon strips, and throw the rest away. Filter the stock. You must have enough stock, equivalent to twice the volume of the blanched beans. It is better to have too much stock than not enough.
Soak beans in water overnight. Throw out that water.
In a pot, boil water, put in the beans, and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain beans and put aside; then throw water away.
Cook beans in the pork stock for 1 1/2 hours at a very low boil. Beans should start to soften but should remain intact. Halfway during the cooking add the tomato purée to the cooking beans. Drain and remove the beans but keep the stock warm. Add to the pork stock, the chicken stock, and red wine.
Remove the fat from the duck confit. In a large frying pan add oils, plus the fat from the duck and sauté the pork pieces and sausages. The pieces must be well browned. Remove the meats and sauté the vegetables in the fat and oils. Add the garlic to the pan toward the end, sauté just long enough to cook through without browning.
Line the bottom of the cassole with the reserved pork rinds and bacon strips. Add about a third of the beans. Add the meats, vegetables on top of the meats, and sprinkle the herbs, spices, salt, and pepper. Top with the remaining beans.
Pour enough hot stock to leave the very top of the beans uncovered.
If using a cassole, heat oven to 325 F and simmer the cassoulet for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. During cooking a brown crust will form on top; the crust has to be sunk-in several times without crushing the beans. Make sure the beans do not dry out. If they seem dry, pour in more of the stock but without covering the top of the beans.
After it is cooked, turn the oven off but keep the cassole covered in the oven till it cools off.
Reheat the oven to 300 F, sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the cassoulet, and continue cooking for 1 1/2 more hours.
Serve the dish hot from the cassole.
As far as wines are concerned, a full-bodied red from the Minervois, which is one of the best wine regions in the south of France, is the perfect pairing.
In the United States, I purchased the duck leg confit and saucisson à l’ail from Fabrique Délices.
Manos Angelakis is a wine and food writer in New York City. As the gastronomy critic for luxuryweb.com, he has spent many years traveling the world in search of culinary excellence.