The best beef I’ve ever eaten was bought in Toulouse, the meat sourced from the region of Limousin not too far away. We ate extremely high quality pork daily, prepared in at least three different ways at each meal. Yet, I feel that duck is most emblematic of Gascony. Certainly, the glut of foie gras is a constant reminder: foie in paté, on salad, on more foie gras. But there is something about the richness and particular saltiness of duck that melds well with with the bounty and the hospitality unique to the region.
The dish that brings this all together is, of course, cassoulet: a meal of various meats, most often duck confit and sausage, baked with beans, broth, and animal fat. Breadcrumbs or patience with the oven will both yield a delicate crunch to balance out the richness of the proteins. Heavy, stick to your ribs fare that will keep you warm well into the next meal- that is Gascony.
Kate has written beautifully about why she makes cassoulet:
Because it warms the hearth, warms the spirit, and nourishes the body to keep the core warm agains the infernal Tramontana winds. I cook cassoulet to teach the basics of how to cook something simply but perfectly.
I’ve included her recipe below because, really, it’s the best I’ve found.
Kate’s Cassoulet de Gascon
This is the basic, bonafide, easy to prepare, authentic, traditional, real, regional version of cassoulet that I prepare, teach, cook and eat in my French Kitchen. The emphasis is on careful combining of very good ingredients, slow cooking and hearty enjoyment. I use duck confit and sausage de Toulouse, ventrèche ( salt cured pork belly), and pork rind for the meats. This is not gospel but pretty close. As much a state of mind as a recipe, this Cassoulet should feed your spirit as well as your belly. Invite a few friends- make it a party.
This makes a large cassoulet that fills a 4-liter cassole and feeds 8 people easily.
Step 1: the beans
- beans -1 kg dried beans (tarbais, coco, lingots, or other plump thin skinned white bean (for dried beans- soak several hours, over night or cover with water, bring to boil and let sit one hour.)
- 1 onion- peeled
- one whole carrot
- 2 cloves
- 2 garlic cloves
- Thick slice of ventrèche (pancetta), salt pork, bacon or ham ends.
- Ham bone or hock
- Fresh pork rind-(couenne) about a 4-by-12 inch strip or about 100gr, rolled and tied with a string
- Bouquet garni- bay, thyme and parsley stems.
- black peppercorns- a dozen slighty crushed
Place all of the above ingredients in a large pot, cover with 2 litres of water; because of the addition of the ham bone there is no need to season with salt at this stage. The seasoning can be adjusted when the cassoulet is put together.
Bring the bouillon to a boil then turn down to simmer and let cook gently for 1 hour or until beans are just barely tender. How do you tell if the beans are done?The skins go papery and begin to collapse and the cooking liquid is milky.
Step 2: the meat- prepare while the beans are cooking.
Ingredients: This is where you can be flexible using fresh sausage, preserved duck or goose, ham or cured pork, lamb shanks, etc. We used:
- Duck- confit de canard- one/half leg per person (note: after slipping off most of the softened congealed fat from the surface of the duck legs, we trimmed any excess skin so as to leave just a covering to protect the meat. We jointed the thigh from the drumstick and then teased the thigh bone out resulting in a neat little package of confit meat that is easier to cut in the plate.)
- Saucisse de Toulouse- about 500 grams or about 15 cm/6 inches per person. This is a fresh pork sausage made from primarily the shoulder meat and seasoned with salt and pepper. Nothing else.
- Saucisse de Couenne- I love how these succulent sausages made with lean pork meat and the soft rind taste. They sort of explode with flavour in the cassoulet.
Brown all of the above; the duck confit in a sauté pan and the sausages we cooked over the grill, however, they could have been pan browned as well. You want a nice hot fire to brown the skins and it’s preferable to not cook the sausages 100% at this stage as they will continue to cook in the cassoulet and give their juices to the broth.Note: Because we buy the sausage in one long link we made a pretty spiral that may be browned as a whole on one side then turned over in one piece to cook the other side.We did this on a grill over the hot ashes of the log fire.
Step 3: to assemble the cassoulet
The traditional cassole bottom is just half of the diameter as the top, making a deep slant-sided glazed terracotta pot (see pictures). Remove the bouquet garni, ham bones, onion, carrot and rind from the beans. I chop the onion, carrot and rind into small bean-size pieces and take the tender meat off the ham bone then return all to the beans and gently stir in. USing a slotted spoon, the cassole is then layered with the beans, the confit and pieces of toulouse and rind sausage then finished with a layer of beans. Adjust the seasoning of the broth from the beans; a little salt, some more black pepper and pinch of piment d’esplette. the tweaked bouillon/bean stock is wonderfully savoury. Now add this liquid to the cassoles until the beans are just covered.Any remaining bouillon should be saved for basting if needed or making bean soup with leftovers.
Step 4- To cook the cassoulet
Slip the cassole into a very hot oven (around 450’ F/ 275’C); turn down the oven after 30 minutes to medium heat- 350′ F/175′C and then let the cassoulet bake slowly as long as you can. The cassoulet in the electric oven is nicely browned in about 1-1/2 to 2 hours; ‘break’ the crust by pushing into down into the juices two or three more times. A wonderful crust forms during cooking so there is no need for a sprinkle of breadcrumbs* as the beans and starchy sauce do this by themselves. Cassoulets are not fatty and are nicely done in about 2 hours. If you start preparing the cassoulet at around 3 pm and you’ll be sitting at the table by eight pm. This could be done in advance- all or in part by cooking the beans, and or assembling before baking.
Step 5: to serve
Pour a glass of hearty red wine like a Madiran, Cahors or Zinfandel, break the crust on top at the table, ladle the steaming cassoulet into dishes and prepare to be very full and very warm as stories are told around the kitchen table well into the night!