In the United States making cassoulet is a Big Cook. But where I sit as I type this, ten miles from Castelnaudry, it’s standard cuisine, almost to the point of fast food. Behold!
My husband here is standing bemused in a discount supermarket. The wall of canned goods in front of him is every possible permutation of the ingredients of cassoulet, canned. Duck legs plus beans. Duck legs plus sausage plus beans. Beans with sausage. Beans alone. Beans with pork and duck but no sausage. And so on, a wall of canned goods that extends for the full wall of this supermarket. And we have not even wandered over to the freezer section, where there is yet more. I am in the white-hot center of cassoulet, folks.
Therefore I had not intended to make my own, but to simply follow humbly in the footprints of the local chefs. Alas, the coronavirus lockdown has closed every restaurant in France. The only possible response is to make one’s own cassoulet. So, are you with me? Here we go!
The first thing to know about this iconic dish of southern France is that it’s peasant food. Poor people never get one chunk of costly meat. They eke out a miscellany of what’s on hand with cheap stuff, which is to say beans. There are as many recipes for cassoulet as there are villages in the Occitane. You have to pick a recipe, and I have selected Felicity Cloake’s in the Guardian, because she’s anal about versions and cooks all the versions to try them out.
The second thing to say about cassoulet is, animal fat. This is not a vegetarian dish. And thus the first task is shopping. Beans, confit duck legs, pork, lamb. I came home and immediately put the beans in to soak:
I have here 1 kg of large white beans. Lingots are the traditional bean used here for this dish, but you can use cannellis or even white navy beans. Soak overnight and cook with the aromatics:
The one item here that you might not recognize is the allumets. Which is to say little pieces of bacon. In the US bacon comes only in breakfast strips. Here, you can get it ready cut up. I have gone with this. I have also added the celery, because I happen to have celery, and it is never wrong to add celery to beans. The beans are cooked in water with their aromatics for an hour or so. In the interval I have fried these:
The key ingredients here are the Toulouse sausage, and the confit duck legs. Both of these items are staples, like hamburger in the meat department of the grocery store. But just try and find them in a supermarket in the United States! Lamb ribs I chose simply because they were cheap — peasant cuisine, remember. The pork belly, unlike the similar product in the US, has the bone in. I fried the duck legs first, so that they would give me enough fat to fry everything else.
There is nothing that fries more beautifully brown than duck fat. Once fried, all the meats are cut up into chunks. As a thrifty housewife, I am turning the duck bones into stock. Here is that magnificent coil of Toulouse sausage going into the frying pan, with the almost-done beans in the background:
Finally, assembling. I don’t have a large pan suitable for this whole mass of food. So I’ve split the beans and meat into three smaller dishes:
Why is there no tomato paste in this country? I have subbed in a couple canned tomatoes, crushed in my hands. Topped with bread crumb and baked for a couple hours:
Now is that not magnificent? My division into three dishes means this is a serving for two. My husband, a hearty eater, has ensured that there are no leftovers. I have eaten cassoulet in restaurants here, and it is plain that they were working from pre-prepped ingredients. Cans! From scratch, this dish is superb. A glass of local red wine, and a salad, and I could eat it every week of my life!