TT Culinary Institute: Cassoulet
The revival of classic French cooking is still going strong, so if you've already tried your hand at homemade croissants and taken boeuf bourguignon for a spin, it's time to turn your attention to the ultimate French comfort food: cassoulet.
This classic stew from Languedoc made with white beans braised with confit duck legs and garlic sausage (see the recipe) is an ideal project to try out before winter is over. The whole process might take three days, but you end up with so much that it'll take you just as long to eat it. (And if you're looking for a shortcut, check out our Instant Pot cassoulet recipe, too.)
According to Ariane Daguin, CEO of D'Artagnan and an avid cassoulet maker, this dish came to be after Castelnaudary, a town in the South of France, was besieged. "They started to run out of food, and the mayor asked everyone to bring what they had in their cupboards to the middle of the village. Because it was winter, they had beans and preserved meats. They put it all together, and that was how they created the very first cassoulet."
The dish has evolved over the years to become a staple dish in French cuisine. "For a lot of French people, it’s also something that’s really nostalgic and emotional; for me, it’s what I ate every Christmas with my family growing up," Dominique Ansel, pastry chef and owner of Dominique Ansel Bakery, explains. "It’s my turkey or Christmas ham and reminds me of these memories from when I was a kid." Ansel still makes his three-day cassoulet every Christmas, dumping an entire bottle of Riesling into the mix.
With the resurgence of all things French in the dining world, chefs are putting this homey comfort food on their menus, and we're eating it up. Daguin even began an annual Cassoulet War three years ago, an event where chefs flex their creative muscles with variations including chorizo or chicharrones. And because of the recent popularity, we've consulted with our cassoulet experts for tips and tricks on mastering the classic.
"A perfect cassoulet is all about the white Tarbais beans," Ansel says. And every chef we speak to agrees that this particular kind of bean is crucial for a great cassoulet.
The beans are cooked with salt pork or ventrèche (a French version of pancetta) and vegetables, which makes a rich base for the stew. Unlike other white beans, Tarbais hold their shape when cooking, while turning soft and velvety inside. The long cooking will allow for some of the beans to break apart, thickening the broth slightly for the perfect consistency.
Though some chefs say it's all about the beans, others argue for the duck confit. "The key to a perfect cassoulet is the slow confit of the ingredients," Ludo Lefebvre, chef and owner of Petit Trois in Los Angeles, says. Though the chef did not grow up eating the stew because he comes from a different region in France, he has grown to love it and serves it on his menu. For a proper duck confit, Moulard duck legs are cured overnight with salt and herbs before slowly cooking in duck fat in the oven. The result isn't just a fall-off-the-bone duck leg, but a pot of duck fat, fortified with more duck flavor and the herbs and garlic from curing.
This fat is liquid gold. It's what we use to cook the sausage, grease the pan, toss with the bread crumbs and just pour over the stew. Even then, there's still plenty of extra duck fat left over, which can be kept in the freezer for future cassoulets or used just to cook with (it's the secret to perfect roast potatoes and Chex Mix).
We've Got the Meats
It doesn't stop at beans and duck confit, however. A cassoulet is packed with pork products, from the salt pork in the beans to the heaps of Toulouse sausage. Laetitia Rouabah, executive chef of Benoit in NYC and a competitor in the most recent Cassoulet War, explains that the original recipe she learned has confit duck leg, lamb neck, salted pork belly, Toulouse sausage, garlic sausage, pork ribs and goose fat all in the pot. At Benoit, she even adds pork shank and pig's ears. We go with a combo of French garlic sausage and duck sausage.
Crust Is a Must
One of our favorite parts of this dish is how passionate chefs feel about their particular way of making cassoulet, and one of the divisive issues is the use of bread crumbs. At the end of the three-day affair, the cassoulet stew gets baked to form a crust. In Toulouse, it is common to add bread crumbs, an addition we love and use in our recipe. However, Daguin tells us that adding bread crumbs is hearsay. Whatever liberties you take, just make sure you're using fresh, quality ingredients.
Now, pick a weekend to try this culinary adventure. We promise you'll be thanking us in the end. Oh, and don't forget the ultimate requirement in French cooking: plenty of crusty baguette. Something Ansel recommends for sopping up all the broth. Another pro move.
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