When Anthony Bourdain cooks with Michael Ruhlman on the Cleveland episode of
Cassoulet is a dish that just makes sense. Why does it make sense? You take fatty, flavorful meat, put it in a big pot with moisture-hungry beans and bake the whole thing until the beans are infused with all that fat and flavor and the meat is cooked. It’s not meant to be a fancy dish–this is the kind of food French people make at home–and it’s infinitely variable, as evidenced by the infinite cassoulet recipes you will find in my infinite cookbook collection, recipes that vary the type of meat, the type of bean, even the amount of time it takes to make the dish (Bourdain’s recipe, in his “Les Halles Cookbook,” calls for three days). I didn’t have three days to spare on Friday night when I set out to make my very first cassoulet. So I turned to an under-praised, underused book in my collection: Daniel Boulud’s “Daniel’s Dish: Entertaining at Home with a Four-Star Chef”.
It’s a great recipe for its simplicity (it’s called “Casual Cassoulet”) and yet the recipe has a serious flaw: it’s meant to be cooked in a 15-Qt Dutch Oven. I completely missed that part when I shopped for my ingredients, so I prepped enough food for a pot 3X bigger than the one I had. Therefore, the recipe that follows is my adaptation of Daniel’s recipe for Dutch Ovens of a more realistic size. Daniel’s recipe calls for lamb shoulder, but I left that out too: sausage + duck + bacon = plenty of meat for one dish, thank you very much.
Since winter’s almost over, this is the perfect dish to make on one of our last cold winter’s nights. I promise it’s easy and I promise the pay-off is big. And so, without further ado, Cassoulet in 10 Easy Steps.
1. Soak two pounds of Cannelini beans in water overnight OR, if you’re like me and you want to make this instantaneously, use the “quick-soak” method featured in the Gourmet cookbook. Put all the beans in a pot, cover by two inches of cold water, bring to a boil, boil for two minutes, put the lid on, turn the heat off and leave for an hour. You’re done!
That’s what I call a quick soak. [Note: I’d definitely use dried beans for this, since they’re such a major part of the dish. Canned beans seem much more likely to disintegrate.]
2. Cut an onion into 1/2-inch cubes, 2 carrots into 1/2-inch cubes, 2 stalks celery into half inch cubes, and slice all the cloves from one whole head of garlic (that’s what it calls for in the big recipe, but too much garlic can’t kill a cassoulet, can it?) Tie together 1 bay leaf, 4 spigs parsley, 3 sprigs time:
3. Salt and pepper 3 duck legs (I was serving 3 people, so I did ONE duck leg and ONE sausage per person–vary accordingly) and 3 sweet Italian sausages and dice 1/2 pound of bacon into cubes:
4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and in the Dutch oven, melt 2 Tbs butter along with 2 Tbs olive oil over medium heat.
5. Now here’s where I disagree with Daniel (who are you gonna trust: me or a 4-star chef?) He has you throw all that meat in the pot all at once until it all gets brown. Maybe he suggests that because he assumes you have a 15-Qt. Dutch Oven, but you don’t have that, do you? Of course not. So I added all the meat at once and gallons of fat came out and the meat took forever to get brown, basically steaming in all that fat. If I had to do it again, I’d brown the duck legs really well first, take them out, brown the sausages really well, take them out, and add the bacon till it renders a bit, then throw all the meat back in. In any case: brown your meat!
[There was so much fat, I ladled a few ladlefuls out. No one missed it.]
6. Add your vegetables and herbs and stir and cook for 10 minutes.
7. Add 2 Tbs tomato paste, stir around, then add 1/2 pound peeled tomatoes (I used ones from a can) that you dice into 1/2-inch cubes, and the beans (just keep adding beans until it looks pretty full–you’ll want a lot of beans) and then add water until the beans are covered and bring to a boil:
8. Cover the pot and bake in the oven until the beans are tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. After 45 minutes check to see if it needs more water, and if so add some. When it’s done, take out of the oven and season with salt, paprika and cayenne pepper to taste. Just stir it all around and taste it: you’ll love it.
9. Now’s the fun part: the breadcrumb topping. Reduce the oven to 350 and take 2 cups of fresh bread crumbs, mix together with 3 Tbs coarsely chopped parsley, 6 cloves of finely chopped garlic, salt and pepper and layer on the top of the cassoulet. Now Daniel has you do this in two stages: you put half the breadcrumbs on, drizzle on 3 Tbs melted butter, put in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, remove from the oven, press it into the liquid to moisten and then cover with the rest of the breadcrumbs, drizzle on another 3 Tbs butter, and put under the broiler until golden brown (5 to 7 minutes). I think the reason he suggests this is because if you don’t do it this way, lots of the breadcrumbs sink into the moisture and you get a big gunky mess. But I had impatient eaters waiting on the couch:
So I just did it all at once. All the breadcrumbs went on and I drizzled on 6 Tbs of butter:
Into the oven it went, and out it came (about 10 minutes later) thusly:
Not bad, eh?
Everyone gets a duck leg, everyone gets a sausage, everyone gets a big bowl of bacon-infused beans. Served with a strong French wine, could a winter meal get any better? It really can’t.
Plus, the next day, the leftovers taste even better and go great with a salad:
This is the kind of food that sounds scary because of its big scary name (Craig quite cutely calls it “Cassie O’lay”) but which is indeed, quite easy, once you understand the concept. So here’s the concept: meat infused beans. Now was that hard? It’s not! Give cassoulet a try and do it soon, before it gets too warm to consume all that fat, meat and beany beany goodness.
You may want your own bedroom afterwards, however.
I’m just saying.