I used to think cassoulet was all about the confit of duck or goose but like a risotto or paella is all about the rice and the other ingredients are merely flavourings, cassoulet is all about the beans. And the caramelisation of the surface. A cassoulet is not a soupy or stewey type of dish. There is a tender balance when adding the stock the beans were cooked in, to the beans and meats for the final cooking, it can not be drowned or left too dry. Cassoulet is country fare and while it is raved about like it contains angels wings and good drugs, it really is, when you follow the rules, rather extraordinary.So the rules are, (and there are rules) according to the Etats Generaux de la Gastronomie, the ratio should be 70% beans and flavourings to 30% confit and meats. The pot it is cooked in (cassole) is similar to the Spanish cassuela (above) but taller with no handles, earthenware and also glazed on the inside only. The beans must be blanched then cooked with the pork and pork rind, onion and a bouquet garni. The stock made from cooking the beans goes into the final dish for a 3 hour cooking with the beans, confit of duck and pork and garlic sausage. One region of France adds lamb shoulder cooked in wine instead of pork. Breaking the crust several times while cooking is a must and breadcrumbs on the surface are a must not! You really don’t need them.
This is what I did. During the week I made the confit with four duck legs, see here for confit of duck.
Next part: You need 1.5 k pork belly, 400g haricot beans, 1 bouquet garni, 1 onion, peeled and quartered. Slice the rind off the pork belly and cut the belly into 4 cm cubes. Put the haricot beans into cold water, bring to the boil, then boil for 5 minutes, strain. Put the beans back in the pot and cover by 50% with water, add the rind from the pork belly, the pork belly, the onion and the bouquet garni. Season with salt and simmer gently, one hour then strain into another pot so you retain the cooking liquid.
Next bit: You need 3 pork and garlic sausages. Take the confit from the duck fat it is nestled amongst. Use some duck fat to brown the sausages and when the pork belly has simmered (as above) take it out of the beans and also brown in the duck fat for flavour. Line the pot you will cook the cassoulet in with the pork rind, add 1/3 of the beans in a layer then the confit of duck, pork belly and the sausages (cut the suasages into 4 cm pieces first). Cover with the rest of the beans or whatever will fit in the pot. Fill to just above the beans with the cooking liquid from the beans (reserved before). Drizzle the surface of the cassoulet very meanly with duck fat. Cook in a 150 degree oven for 3 hours.
Every hour for the first two, break the crust that forms on the surface and top up with bean liquid if it seems too dry. Most recipes say to assemble the cassoulet and cook for the required 3 hours then refrigerate and reheat to scalding to serve. I did this as I thought the overnight must enhance the flavours even more but to tell the truth I could not stop eating it as it came out of the oven the first time, I don’t think it really improved all that much the second day and you lose the first and most delicious crust.
A note on shopping today compared with the 1800s. I used pork belly for the pork ratio in my cassoulet and of course it comes with pork rind which is in all the traditional recipes. The pork rind, containing heaps of gelatine, is a natural thickener . In Australia, instead of Toulouse sausages which are never quite right here, try to find a pork sausage with garlic from a good butcher. I bought pork, garlic and fennel sausages from Barossa fine foods in the Market which were perfect. The addition of a ‘small piece of rancid fat’ (Larousse) is obviously not what would happen in any household today, but duck fat from the confit drizzled on the top of the cassoulet is delicious and integral in forming the final crust.