We chose our wedding location to be near our favorite restaurant for cassoulet, The Ledford House. Well, OK, also because that same restaurant is on the Mendocino coast, a place that we love. And where we first fell in love. But you really can’t discount the draw of their cassoulet. As Tony, the owner, says, “It’s to live for”.
For the uninitiated, cassoulet is a French winter stew. It’s peasant-type food, made with the ingredients on hand during the cold winter months: beans and preserved meats for the most part. There are as many recipes as there are French grandmothers and devotion to any one recipe is as fierce as one feels to one’s grandmother. For my part, tomatoes are verboten in the cassoulet – probably because the Ledford House doesn’t serve theirs with tomatoes. Others will swear that they’re essential. So when Lisa Michelle and Jenni announced that this month’s Daring Cooks challenge would be cassoulet – I was overjoyed. But I really couldn’t bring myself to follow their recipe – it looked like all the main elements were the same - but it would be like visiting someone else’s grandmother on Christmas. To bring something new to the table, though, we did make our own sausage.
Below is a pretty steady roster of the ingredients we use in our cassoulet. The specific cut of meat varies based on what looks good at the butcher or what we have on hand. Sometimes I use a lamb shank, more often I use lamb steaks or a chunk of lamb leg – then the preparation approach will vary based on this decision. As with any traditional type dish, you should adjust as needed to suit your taste, ingredients and time. This isn’t a dish to rush, but it also isn’t one that requires much fuss or attention – nearly all the time involved is idle while the duck brines, the beans cook, etc. We hope that you fall in love over it too. And like true love, it’s even tastier the next day.
CassouletPrep and Cook Time: Approx. 3 1/2 hours plus overnight to soak the beans. Not counting the extra day or two to confit your duck, if you’re doing that yourself.
Serves 4 + generous amount of leftovers
1 pound dried white beans
1/3 pound bacon or pork belly
1 large onion
2 stalks celery
4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 – 6” sprig fresh rosemary
2 bay leaves
5-6 large cloves garlic
1 pound lamb steak
1 pound garlic sausage *
4 legs duck confit
1 Tbsp Salt
Garlic breadcrumbs to garnish
* The ideal sausage is a fairly coarse Toulouse sausage. In the US ‘garlic sausage’ seems to cover a gamut from hot dogs on up. a mild Italian sausage could work too – avoid anything too spicy as it’ll really change the nature of the dish. And, please, no hot dogs..
- Rinse and soak the beans overnight. I have learned to salt them during the soak (though not during the cook) and they come out consistently creamy and nice.
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
- Dice the bacon or pork belly, peel and dice the carrots and onion, dice the celery. In a large Dutch oven, heat the bacon gently to render out some of the fat, then add the vegetables and sauté until just starting to brown.
- Drain the beans, then add to the Dutch oven and add just enough fresh water to cover the beans and vegetables. Add the thyme and rosemary. Peel the garlic cloves and add them to the pot whole (they’ll disintegrate on their own by the time this dish is done). Cover and bake for an hour.
beans and aromatics before baking
- Stir the beans and check to see if you need to add more water. If your herbs have already come off their stems, pick out the stems now – or any time before you serve.
- When the beans are soft (usually after an hour and a half of cooking), dice the lamb into approx. 3/4” squares. Sauté the meat separately to brown it on all sides, then add to the beans and cook, covered, for another hour. You can also salt the mix at this time. Don’t bother to wash the sauté pan, as you’ll use it again later.
after an hour we added the lamb to the beans
- At this point you can continue to cook the cassoulet or turn it off if dinnertime is still far away. I like to start prepping the sausages about an hour before I plan to serve the meal – enough time that the flavor integrates, but not so much time that the sausages disintegrate.
- Sauté the sausages until lightly browned. Add water to braise them if they’re cooking too quickly – try not to cook all the way through. When firm, remove from heat and slice into rounds about half an inch thick. Add the sausage to the beans and stir to incorporate. Check the seasoning and adjust if needed. Continue to cook with the lid on.
An hour before serving we add the sausages
- Remove the duck legs from their container and wipe off any surface fat. Sauté over very low heat with the skin side down to render the fat out. I find that I have to pour off fat several times during this process. When the duck has come to temperature and most of the fat is poured off, raise the heat and cook to just bronze the legs on both sides.
- Remove the beans from the oven and raise the heat to broil. Arrange the duck legs on top of the beans, top with garlic breadcrumbs. Return the pot to the oven, uncovered this time and cook until the duck browns and crisps and the beans start to crisp around the edges of the pot.
The final dish – cassoulet topped with duck confit and breadcrumbs
- Serve a generous scoop of the cassoulet topped with a duck leg. Garnish with more thyme if desired.