I confess that I didn’t make cassoulet from scratch until I moved to the United States. Premièrement, my mother was a very competent cook so there was no compelling reason to take over her kitchen. Deuxièmement, cassoulet was readily available in France; even the inexpensive canned versions from the grocery store could satisfy my student friends. Troisièmement, let’s face it: cassoulet is a labor-intensive dish to make. Once in California, I had to do without Mom’s cooking or French-food-in-a-can and, when sufficiently motivated, I would hunt for the necessary ingredients such as Tarbais beans, confit de canard, duck fat, and Toulouse-style sausage. Unconsciously, I may have started my mail-order business just to eliminate the hunting part.
Cassoulet started out as peasant food, a ragout of fava beans that included whatever leftover meat was at hand. White beans were not introduced in Europe until the 16th century but have become the foundation of the dish. France being France, there are arguments about which beans should be used (lingots, cocos, tarbais?) and which meats should (or should not) be added: confit (duck or goose?), pork, lamb, perdrix? And how many times to break the crust? Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, and Toulouse are the three cities claiming they have the “right” recipe. In reality, there are as many variations as there are cooks and, in my mind, it’s a good thing.
Since I was in Carcassonne a month ago, it would have been a dereliction of duty to leave town without sampling some cassoulet. So, I’m going to recommend L’Auberge des Lices in the Cité not just because the cassoulet was very good, not just because the server wore his confrèrie garment, but also because the restaurant was filled with locals who spoke with their lovely Occitan accent: if they grew up on cassoulet, they must know where to enjoy a good one.
Le confit de canard: duck confit
Le haricot tarbais: a large white bean from the Tarbes area where a bean and a corn kennel are planted together; the corn stalk serves as a stake for the climbing bean plant.
La perdrix: partridge
La confrèrie: a guild that celebrates a particular product
L'Occitan: an old language of southwestern France
Cassoulet with duck confit
Cassoulet au confit de canard
4 cups Tarbais beans
2 carrots, peeled and cut in 1/2” slices
½ onion, studded with one whole clove
3 oz slab bacon
1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, parsley)
2 tbsp duck fat
6 legs of duck confit
1 lb Toulouse sausage
½ onion, chopped
2 tbsp flour
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cubed
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 cup dry breadcrumbs
Soak the beans overnight in cold water to cover. Rinse and drain the beans. Put them in a large cooking pot and cover with cold water. Add the carrots, clove-studded onion, bacon slab and bouquet garni. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. While the beans are simmering, melt the duck fat in a Dutch oven; brown the duck confit and the sausages on all sides. Add the chopped onion and cook until soft but not colored. Sprinkle with the flour and stir. Add the tomatoes, the crushed garlic and half a cup of water. Simmer for 10 minutes on the stove. Transfer the confit and sausages to a bowl. When the beans are almost cooked (tender but offering a slight resistance), drain and add the beans cooking liquid to the reserved sauce in the Dutch oven. Discard the bouquet garni. Remove the slab bacon, cut into dice and set aside. Cover the bottom of a large baking dish with a layer of beans. Add the sausages and confit and about 1 cup of the reserved liquid. Cover with another layer of beans and top with the pieces of bacon and more liquid. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and drizzle with a little extra duck fat. Bake for 1 hour, or until the breadcrumbs are lightly colored, and serve in the baking dish.
Tarbais beans, duck fat, duck confit, and Toulouse sausages are available from Joie de Vivre.