Originally published, in a slightly different form, in The Open Hand Celebration Cookbook (New York: Pocket Books, 1991)
FOR NEARLY FIFTEEN YEARS we made a cassoulet once a year or so to with the same group of cassoulet aficionados each time, usually in February or so. It was a ritual for us , starting with making the goose stock from the holiday goose and continuing until ground hog day or later with the week before being an intense time of making goose or duck confit, sometimes making the sausages, making more stock, soaking beans, and gathering all the bits and pieces that are needed. We always assembled and baked the cassoulets the day before we served them and reheated them the day of our dinner because they tasted better the second day.
For the dinner itself we usually started with Champagne and oysters on the half shell, then the cassoulet with good bread, a few pickled sour cherries, and a bottle or two of Bandol. A green salad comes afterward and we usually have some perfect tangerines for dessert.
Like Bouillabaisse, Cassoulet is one of those dishes that you can make year after year, always trying to find the perfect version. We have consulted many sources. We ended up always making something a little different and very good, but always leaving room for even greater perfection next time. And it's always fun for everyone involved.
This is how we did it:
SEVERAL DAYS BEFORE SERVING
Make your goose stock: we use the carcass of the holiday goose, and perhaps another goose or two whose breast, legs and wings have gone into a confit for the cassoulet. Other poultry can be used as well, but goose is best. Make the stock in the usual way, with onion, bay leaf, thyme and pepper but no salt, and use good water. Strained and mostly degreased, the stock can be frozen, or be held in the refrigerator for several weeks, protected by the layer of goose-fat that will rise to the top of the container. For this recipe you will need about eight quarts of stock.
THREE DAYS BEFORE SERVING
1: Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate overnight in a covered dish:
3 lb. pork loin, cubed
4 pigs feet, split
3 lb. pork skin, rolled and tied
TWO DAYS BEFORE SERVING
2: Soak in water to cover:
8 lb. Small White or Great Northern beans
3: Make a ragout of the pork listed under (1) above and the following:
1 lb. sweet or blanched pork belly, or pancetta, diced (not salt pork unless well blanched)Begin by browning the pork in 2 or 3 T goose fat. Add the onion and ham and cook them until soft; then add the tomato; then the remaining ingredients. Other poultry stock can be used in place of (or to extend) goose stock. One fine year we had dozens of pigeon heads and feet for the stock.
1 chopped onion
12 oz. ham, diced
2 T. tomato purée
1 qt. goose stock
half a glass of white wine
bouquet garni (parsley, thyme, bay leaf and celery, tied in a bundle)
2 heads garlic
4: Salt the remaining stock to taste, and bring it to the simmer on top of the stove. Drain the beans; then cover with the stock and simmer until done.
We always simmer them in stock, usually goose (see above). Reserve any unused stock to moisten the cassoulets as they bake (see steps 11 and 12 below).
5: Cook (in simmering water) for half an hour, then add to the ragout:
2-1/2 lb. sausage (andouillettes, saucissons de campagne, garlic sausage — take your choice. Homemade sausage will be best.)
6: Let the ragout simmer for quite a while, until the meat is tender and the flavors are well combined; then refrigerate, covered, overnight.
ONE DAY BEFORE SERVING
7: Bring to room temperature:
20 pieces confit.
We use one goose and one duck, making ten pieces each (wings, legs, thighs, and four breast quarters).
8: Purée, then add to the ragout which you have brought back to a simmer:
8 oz. uncooked pork fatUse a blender or food processor for this step.
12 cloves uncooked garlic
9: Assemble the cassoulets in deep casseroles in the following order:
pork skin (removed from ragout, flattened, and cut to fit bottom of pots; fat side down)
pigs feet (the meat only)
sausages (cut in pieces)
any remaining meat
10: Last, boil briefly until stiff, then broil on one side only, then add, uncooked side up, to top of casseroles:
4-1/2 lb. sausage (Toulouse-style by preference)
11: Fill the casseroles almost to the top with stock, but leave a layer of beans at the very top; cover them with a sprinkling of bread crumbs. The casserole should be just covered with them. The finished texture is improved by dribbling a bit of warm goose fat on them.
12: Bake the cassoulets, uncovered, in a slow oven, for two hours or so, until flavors are well combined and sausages are done, at 250-300°. It doesn't seem to matter much how long the cassoulet stays in the oven once the sausage is cooked — the beans won't cook further once they have cooled after their first simmering in the stock. Do add more stock as necessary to keep the liquid level just under the crumbs. We usually punch the crumbs down into the cassoulets once during the baking, sprinkling a few more crumbs over to replace them, and dribbling a little more goose fat over them.
13: Refrigerate the casseroles, covered, until needed.
THE DAY OF THE DINNER
14: Bring the cassoulet back to about 300° in a slow oven.
Add stock again if there is not enough liquid below the crumbs.
Serve with a sprinkle of walnut oil. Precede with oysters, all agree; follow with a green salad; accompany with a light red or rosé wine — we prefer Bandol red.
The pork-fat-garlic purée touch, reported only by Paula Wolfert, is inspired; it thickens, binds and tenderizes the ragout.
Cassoulet improves upon standing. It should be assembled and cooked the day before eating. We generally make a lot of cassoulets at once, since it's a full day's work.
The choice of pot is extremely important. It may be the most significant variable in the entire operation. Shallow pots won't work at all; those too deep don't allow proper cooking or serving of the mixture. We prefer traditional terra-cotta poêles; ours measure 2 and 3 quarts.
Paulette Wolfert: The Cooking of Southwest France, pp. 238-240. Pierette Lejanou's recipe, not the one with fava beans — though that sounds wonderful.
Simone Beck et al.: Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1, pp. 399-404.
Jane Grigson: The Art of Charcuterie, pp. 168-171.
Elizabeth David: French Provincial Cooking, pp. 385-390. The Colombié recipe, said to be authentic, but lacking the Toulouse sausage! The "menagère" recipe, which omits confit, has also been consulted.
__________: French Country Food, pp. 93-95.
__________: The Book of Mediterranean Food, pp. 110-112.
Samuel Narcissa and Narcisse Chamberlain: The Flavor of France, vol. 2, p. 65.
Robert Courtine: The 100 Glories of French Cooking, p. 120.
Curnonsky: Recettes des Provinces de France, p. 222.