“The composition of Cassoulet is, in typical French fashion, the subject of infinite dispute, so much so that if you have read or heard about Cassoulet and never tasted it, you come to expect a kind of rare ambrosia rather than the nourishing country fare it actually is.”—Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I beg to differ, Julia. As much as I love your brisk good sense and can-do spirit, we disagree on this point. Cassoulet is nourishing country fare, yes. But that entirely misses the point of cassoulet. The point is that it actually is a kind of rare ambrosia. Cassoulet is a dish that is far more than the sum of its parts. It is days (weeks, really if you make your own duck confit!) of careful preparation of ingredients in order to serve yourself and your loved ones with a dish of savory meat and beans that first fills the room with a rich aroma, then fills tummies, then hearts.
It is indeed a rare ambrosia when, on a rainy winter night, I shed my damp coat and settle into a chair across from a friend in a favorite French restaurant, and we order a half carafe of red wine, then the waiter lists the specials and one of them is cassoulet. I feel all hollow in my middle in anticipation.
I am reminded of N.M. Kelby’s words at the end of White Truffles in Winter, and I think that the question before us is not just country fare vs. ambrosia, but “who we…are when we address the plate. The magician, the priest, the dreamer, the artist—it is our most hungry self.”
My imagination was captured many, many years ago, when I had yet to taste cassoulet, the very first time I read A Moveable Feast:
I walked in the early dusk up the street and stopped outside the terrace of the Negre de Toulouse restaurant where our red and white checkered napkins were in the wooden napkin rings in the napkin rack waiting for us to come to dinner. I read the menu mimeographed in purple ink and saw that the plat du jour was cassoulet. It made me hungry to read the name. –Ernest Hemingway
Now there was a man who understood hunger of all kinds.
- 2.5 cups Tarbais beans or small white beans
- 1 pound fresh pork belly
- 1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
- 1 bouquet garni
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 cup duck fat
- 3 pork sausages, halved
- 2 onions, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic clove, thinly sliced
- 2 confit duck legs
Place the beans in the large bowl and cover with cold water so that there are at least 2 or 3 inches of water above the top of the beans. Soak overnight.
Drain and rinse the beans and place in a large pot. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, and the bouquet garni. Cover with water, add salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are just tender, about 30-40 minutes. Let cool slightly, then discard the onion and the bouquet garni. Remove the pork belly, cut it into 2-inch squares, and set aside. Strain the beans and set aside, reserving the cooking liquid separately.
In a saute pan, heat all but 1 tablespoon of the duck fat over medium-high heat until it shimmers and becomes transparent. Carefully add the sausages and brown on all sides. Remove and set aside, draining on paper towels. In the same pan, over medium-high heat, brown the sliced onions, the garlic and the reserved squares of pork belly from the beans. Once browned, remove from the heat and transfer to the blender. Add remaining 1 tablespoon of duck fat and puree until smooth. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350F. In a deep, ovenproof dish, arrange all your ingredients in alternating layers, beginning with a layer of beans, then sausages, then more beans, duck confit and finally more beans, adding a dab of the onion and pork belly puree between each layer. Add enough of the bean cooking liquid to just cover the beans, reserving ½ cup in the refrigerator for later use. Cover and cook the cassoulet in the oven for 1 hour, then reduce the heat to 250F and cook for another hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Cook the cassoulet uncovered for an hour. Break the crust on the top with the spoon and add about 1/4 cup of the reserved cooking liquid if it seems dry. Reduce the heat to 250F and continue cooking another 15 minutes.
Serves two plus generous leftovers for the next day, or four if you can share your duck legs nicely with others.