In the words of Julia Child, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.” Cassoulet is a French dish of white beans baked with meats and takes its name from its cooking pot, the cassole d’Issel. Its origins are traced back to Languedoc in the southwest of France where it was simple farmhouse fare that has now been transformed into a rich and complex dish. There is regional controversy, however, as to its invention. Castelnaudary, Toulouse and Carcassonne all claim to have invented it. A metaphysical solution worthy of the Nicene Council was suggested by Prosper Montagne who compiled the first Larousse Gastronomique when he proclaimed that there were three equal cassoulets: the Father (Castelnaudary), the Son (Carcassonne) and the Holy Spirit (Toulouse). Perhaps the magic of the metaphor takes on its greatest significance when a cassoulet, fragrant and bubbling, arrives at the table surrounded by friends… it’s Communion and fellowship around a dish!
The basic cassoulet from Castelnaudary adds to the beans fresh pork and ham with the addition of tomatoes, garlic, herbs and stock; that of Carcassonne additionally contains mutton and partridges in season. Confit of duck or goose, as well as Toulouse sausage, are added to the basic cassoulet of Toulouse with a crust of bread crumbs and goose fat topping the dish.
Then there is Dayton’s cassoulet that takes this glorious French dish into the heart of Italy! With the addition of pancetta and prosciutto it becomes a dish whose flavors are incomparably delicious. The combination of white beans, confit of duck, ham shank, prosciutto, pancetta and duck sausage prepared using his unique technique make this a dish worthy of 5 stars!
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a large cast iron kettle combine:
1 lb cannellini beans
1 large ham shank, cut in half
Chef’s Note: It is important to divide the bone in order to maximize access to the flavors contained in the marrow. Use a cleaver if necessary.
1 medium white onion
4 whole cloves
Cut the onion in half and stick 2 cloves in each half.
1 whole garlic bulb, 1/2 inch cut off from the top
Cover with water and bring to a boil over moderately high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 1/2 hours… the beans at that time should still be a bit al dente. Occasionally check the water level in the pot to assure that the beans are covered:
While the beans are cooking transfer to the oven:
the preserved duck confit
Chef’s Note: There are two options here. If your confit has been refrigerated in an oven-proof dish place it in the oven, keeping watch, until the fat has just melted. At that point remove four legs, re-pack the remaining legs, cover them with the melted fat, allowing an extra 1/4 inch of fat on top of the legs to assure a proper seal. Return to the refrigerator. The second option is to remove four of the legs from the fat if the storage container is not oven-proof. Place them in a baking dish, slide them into the oven and heat until the fat has just melted. Reserve the fat.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Into a large saucepan over moderately high heat pour:
8 C beef stock
Reduce the stock by half to 4 cups. Turn off the heat and set to the side.
When the beans are done remove the onion and garlic bulb and discard them. Remove the skin from the ham shank as well as the bone and the gristle. Chop the meat and return it to the bean pot. Cover the pot and set to the side.
To a second large cast iron kettle or heavy enameled pot over moderately high heat add:
3 T duck fat
When the fat begins to shimmer add:
1 lb trimmed pork butt, cut into 1 1/2 – 2 inch cubes
Brown on all sides, turning each piece with tongs as necessary:
When the pork has browned, to the pan add:
6 oz panchetta, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
6 oz prosciutto, cut into small dice
Cook an addition 5 – 6 minutes. Add:
1 medium white onion, minced
10 whole peeled garlic cloves, smashed
Cook approximately 10 minutes or until the garlic and the onions begin to brown:
2 tsp dried thyme
4 fresh bay leaves, cut into slivers
1 tsp ground allspice
1 14 1/2 oz can diced tomatoes
2 T tomato paste
Stir to combine and cook and additional 8 – 10 minutes. Add:
the reduced beef broth (4 cups)
Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium low umtil liquid has thickened, approximately 1 hour. During this time of reduction remove the skin from:
4 legs of duck confit
Strip the skin and meat from the bones. Do not discard the skin! Discard the bones and any excess fat that may be clinging to the skin. Set the meat to the side. Slice into 1/2-inch pieces and set aside:
1 lb duck sausage (4 links)
To a large skillet over moderately high heat add the duck skin removed from the legs. Fry until crisp and golden brown:
Transfer to a cutting board, coarsely chop and set to the side:
Cut into cubes:
1 plain baguette
Place cubed bread into a food processor, pulse into crumbs and set aside:
To a skillet over moderately high heat add:
1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
When the oil begins to shimmer add:
3 T finely minced garlic
Saute until garlic is translucent:
4 T melted duck fat
2 C bread crumbs
Cook until the fat is just absorbed then add:
the reserved cracklings
Toss to combine, then set aside.
Add the duck meat and sausage pieces to the pork mixure. Add additional beef broth if necessary:
Transfer the beans and ham shank meat to the pot:
Stir to combine and check the seasonings. If necessary, add:
- salt and black pepper, to taste
Chef’s Note: Additional salt may not be needed at all as many of the meats included in the cassoulet have been cured and may provide sufficient saltiness to season the dish.
Sprinkle the topping mixture evenly over the casserole:
Transfer the casserole to the 350 degree oven and cook for 1 hour. Raise the oven temperature to 500 degrees, uncover the pot and cook until the crumb topping is golden and crusty, approximately 10 – 15 minutes:
Serve this rich, fragrant and wonderfully savory cassoulet which showcases the best of both France and Italy with pride to family and friends. Do plan ahead when preparing this dish as the time involvement is about 4 hours from beginning to end. The velvety textures and flavors that are brought to the table make every minute spent in preparation worthwhile! There is plenty of down time for the chef to do other things since the stovetop and the oven consume most of the time. Garnish the plated cassoulet with minced fresh Italian parsley and serve with a spicy field greens salad tossed simply with extra virgin olive oil and a red wine vinegar… Bon Appetit!
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