The last time (and only time) I’ve ever made cassoulet, it was a bit of a Noah’s Ark affair. There was duck, there was sausage, there was bacon. My cup, quite literally, was runneth over with meat and beans. Cassoulet is meant to be a hefty dish and, as a general rule, the bigger your cooking vessel, the better off you’ll be. This time around, I thought I was in good shape making Donald Link’s Pork Belly and Smoked Sausage Cassoulet from his Down South cookbook. There were only two meats to worry about, pork belly and smoked sausage, and only one pound of dried white beans. This time I’d have my cassoulet under control.
One of the nice things about making cassoulet for a dinner party is that it seems like a lot of work, but really it’s just a matter of soaking beans overnight (the only step you really need to do ahead), browning a bunch of meat the next day, adding vegetables, adding the beans, adding liquid, and cooking it in the oven for four hours.
The only tricky thing with this particular recipe is tracking down the pork belly. Lucky for me, there’s a great butcher in L.A. that I mention all the time, McCall’s Meat and Fish, and I called them Saturday morning to see if they had 2 1/2 pounds of pork belly. They did and they set some aside for me, which I picked up after getting an iced New Orelans style coffee at Blue Bottle across the street. Have you ever had that? There’s chicory in it.
Here’s how easy it is to make cassoulet: cut that pork belly into 1-1/2 inch cubes and season with lots of salt and pepper.
Add to a dry Dutch Oven, crank up the heat, and brown the meat. The fat will render out (you’ll be surprised how much comes out) and you’ll hear lots of sizzling. This step is super important; the browner you get the pork belly, the better your cassoulet will be.
Once the pork belly is all browned, you add your sausages. I found smoked sausage at Gelson’s that was smoked beef sausage, and I’m pretty sure this recipe wanted smoked pork sausage, but I couldn’t find that. The beef stuff worked great.
Now it’s time for your vegetables: onions, celery, carrots, garlic, bay leaves (are bay leaves a vegetable?), red pepper flakes, and fresh thyme.
Once those cook down a bit, you add white wine and let that reduce for three minutes.
Then you add the ingredient that makes this cassoulet really flavorful; so flavorful, in fact, that my friends Mark and Diana, who came over to eat it, called it “the best cassoulet we’ve ever had.” They speak in unison. It’s really weird.
Are you ready for the secret ingredient? THREE TABLESPOONS OF WHOLE-GRAIN MUSTARD. Also tomato paste. But that mustard works wonders.
In it goes and then you add the pork belly back to the pot, along with a quart of chicken broth, and you cook it covered for 60 minutes until the pork belly is cooked through “but not falling apart.”
Here’s where things got dicey: you add your soaked beans and another quart of stock. Only, my pot couldn’t take another quart of stock. Take a look.
Once again: my cup runneth over.
But it didn’t matter… I just stuck that whole thing (very carefully) into a 250 oven and let it cook for 3 1/2 hours uncovered. Actually, I got nervous that it wasn’t bubbling enough, so I cranked the oven up to 300 eventually. In the last half hour it gets cranked up to 450 until you get a crusty top.
And that’s basically exactly how things worked out… despite my fears, the cassoulet emerged from the oven looking pretty stellar. Served with a green salad, it was a perfect Sunday night dinner.
The fat from the pork belly melts away during all of that cooking time and infuses the beans; at the end, you get these incredibly flavorful beans and incredibly tender pieces of meat.
So find the largest oven-proof cooking vessel you have, track down some pork belly, and start soaking your beans. Cassoulet isn’t for the faint of heart, or for those suffering from heart disease, for that matter. But it is for those who are looking for some rib-sticking goodness on a cold (L.A.) winter’s night. Happy cooking.
[The recipe is online in various places. Here it is on NJ.com; it’s also on Genius Kitchen.]