Every year since I’ve met my husband (that would be 19 years ago), I’ve prepared cassoulet. It’s a winter or cold weather dish. It’s heavy, filled with cannellini beans, pork, lamb, duck confit (duck cooked and preserved in duck fat), duck stock, herbs and garlic. It’s a great dish to eat when the winds are howling, the last blizzard of the season is in the making, and you’re still stoking the fire in the fireplace or woodstove.
Typically, I prepare this dinner at the end of March or the beginning of April. The origin of this dish is from the Toulouse-region of France, and I first tasted it when I worked for a Manhattan caterer. Our office manager had requested the chef make this dish for her birthday lunch. At first, I didn’t understand what the big deal was about a casserole of pork and beans. So while you may not want to engage in such a lengthy preparation, I think it’s worth the effort.
I’ve included my cassoulet recipe, tweaked over the years, as well as a nice end-of-dinner accompaniment, poached pears. Both can be made ahead of time, leaving you with more time to enjoy everyone around the dinner table. It’s also a way to celebrate the end of eating monochromatic foods, and our transition to the brighter colors of food to come – the vibrant greens of ramps, asparagus, and fiddleheads.
*** Up to three weeks prior to serving, start the duck confit preparation. Although there are a number of steps involved, you’re producing one of the essential ingredients of the dish, with a layering of different spices mingling with the flavor of the duck.
Yield: 12 with leftovers.
Three 5 to 6 pound whole ducks
1 tablespoon coarse sea salt
Mixed Spices (from a mixture of 1 tablespoon ground cloves, 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg, 1 tablespoon ground black pepper, and one-half teaspoon cinnamon)
1/2 tablespoon black pepper
1 bay leaf, crushed
6 branches rosemary
1 head of garlic, with cloves peeled
2 pounds duck skin and fat, in small pieces
Cut up ducks: Separate thigh-leg portions in one piece, boning the thigh, however leaving it attached to the leg. Trim all visible fat from thigh-leg pieces; reserve fat in a heavy saucepan. Cut away as much fat and skin from the carcass as possible, chop in small pieces, and add to reserved fat. Remove breasts, trimming excess fat and skin. Reserve any bones and bits of meat for making duck stock.
Marinate duck pieces: Place a clove in each garlic clove; set aside. Sprinkle thigh-leg portions, wings, and breasts with mixed spices, crushed bay leaf, salt and pepper. Place a piece of rosemary sprig on each portion. With duck pieces in a glass dish or roasting pan, randomly place clove studded garlic pieces amidst the duck, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours.
Render duck fat: Place the skin and fat in a medium-sized saucepan. Cover with approximately one cup water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the fat has melted and water has evaporated, close to an hour. Remove from heat and strain the fat through a fine sieve or cheesecloth, pouring the fat into a clean mason jar. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate. This will give you approximately 4 cups of duck fat and will keep for a few months.
Prepare confit: Remove the duck pieces from refrigerator and using a paper towel, wipe off herb mixture, reserving the garlic and cloves. Heat the rendered duck fat in a large and heavy stockpot. When the fat is warm (not hot), add the duck pieces to the pot along with the clove-studded garlic.
Cook slowly over low heat for at least 3 hours, or until the meat can easily be pierced with a fork tine. The fat should never reach the point of boiling and the meat should cook at a low simmer.
When the meat is cooked, remove them from the kettle and set aside. Using wide-rimmed glass jars, arrange the duck pieces in the jars. Pass the duck fat through a fine sieve and pour over the duck, completely covering the duck. Cover and cool to room temperature; refrigerate. (Duck will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks.)
When ready to use, remove the jars from the refrigerator and allow to stand for a few hours until the fat softens. After the pieces are removed, wipe off the excess fat, reserving the fat for later use.
All of the poultry parts discarded from making the duck confit (at least 7 to 8 pounds worth — substitute chicken necks and backs to make up the difference)
3 peeled carrots
6 leeks, washed and cut in half, vertically
3 celery stalks
3 peeled turnips
6 cloves of garlic
Place all of the poultry parts and vegetables in a large stockpot; cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook at a boil for approximately one hour. Skim off any fat. Lower the heat and simmer the stock for an additional 5 hours. Strain the stock through a strainer lined with cheesecloth or a fine linen towel.
Return the stock to the stock pot and reduce to approximately three quarts, for a rich stock. Allow stock to cool and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use in the cassoulet.
3 pounds dried beans, such as Navy or Great Northern
One half pound fresh pork rind (You can use the smoked variety if you can’t find fresh. Place in a saucepan with enough water to cover, bring to a boil for 20 minutes and drain.)
One pound fresh slab bacon
2 carrots, peeled
4 onions, peeled
2 bouquets garnis, each consisting of one teaspoon thyme, 1 bay leaf, 5 sprigs parsley, and one teaspoon black peppercorns
One head garlic, all cloves peeled
Salt to taste
One-half cup fat from the duck confit
Two to three pounds lamb shanks, boned and cut into one- by one-inch cubes
Two to three pounds pork shoulder, boned and cut into one- by one-inch cubes
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
One quart canned whole tomatoes
Two to three quarts duck or chicken stock
One and one-half pounds garlic sausage
Prepared duck confit (from above recipe – you can just use the legs or incorporate all of the pieces used in the confit)
One pound fresh Toulouse or pork sausage (do not use sausage that’s spicy or sweet)
One cup fresh bread crumbs mixed with one-quarter cup minced parsley and 2 minced cloves of garlic
Two days prior to serving the cassoulet, rinse and then soak the beans in water overnight. The following day, drain the beans and place them in a large stock pot, adding the pork rind, fresh bacon, carrots, two onions pierced with the cloves, one bouquet garni, and seven to ten cloves of garlic. Season with salt, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer for a little over one-half hour or until the beans are almost tender. Drain the beans.
Heat 4 tablespoons of the duck fat in a large skillet, add the lamb cubes, and sauté over medium-high heat until well browned. Remove from the pan. Repeat the method with the pork cubes, seasoning the meats with salt and pepper.
Chop the remaining onions and crush the remaining garlic. Remove and discard the onions, carrots, and bouquet garni. Remove the bacon and cut into one-inch pieces.
In a large, heavy enameled, cast-iron pot, place the sautéed meats along with the chopped onions, crushed garlic, the remaining bouquet garni, and the canned tomatoes. Season lightly with salt, add one to one and one-half quarts of stock, and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for one and one-half hours.
Add the beans, pork rind, garlic, and bacon to the pot along with the garlic sausage and the confit.
The mixture should be moist, if necessary add more stock, and simmer for one-half hour. While the mixture is cooking, sauté the fresh sausage until golden brown.
Final Assembly: Remove all meats (except bacon) and place in a separate bowl. Discard the pork rind. Slice the garlic sausage into one-third-inch-thick slices. Cut the fresh pork sausage into two-inch pieces.
In a large enamel-coated cast-iron casserole (like a Le Creuset style) spread half of the beans. Arrange the cubes of lamb and pork on top. Place remaining beans on top of the meat followed by the duck confit and pork sausage pieces. Arrange the garlic sausage ovals on the top and add a couple of more cups of broth on top. Cover the casserole and refrigerate overnight.
Remove the cassoulet from the refrigerator a few hours prior to cooking, bringing it to room temperature. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Heat the remaining duck fat over low heat in a small saucepan. Sprinkle bread crumb mixture over the top of the cassoulet and then drizzle the duck fat over the bread crumb mixture.
Place the casserole in a larger, deeper pan filled with hot water. Bake uncovered for at least two hours, or just until the cassoulet starts to bubble. If the cassoulet looks dry, add extra broth during the cooking process.
Poached Pears in Port or Red Wine
Yield: four servings
4 Bosc pears (not quite ripe)
1 1/2 cups port or red wine
3/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups water
1 lemon sliced
4 or 5 whole cloves stick of cinnamon parchment paper
Peel small hard pears, leaving their stalk on and slice the bottom so it can stand on its own. (As they are peeled, place in a bowl of water with fresh lemon juice to prevent them from turning brown.)
In a medium saucepan, bring port or wine, water, and sugar to a boil. Turn heat to medium-low and add lemon, cinnamon stick, cloves and pears. Cover the pan with parchment paper and a lid and simmer until very tender, at least 20 minutes. Remove the pears to a bowl and continue to cook the sauce until it is reduced by half and becomes syrupy. Strain the syrup over the pears and refrigerate overnight.
Serve the chilled pears whole, on a plate with a dollop of whipped cream and/or marscapone. Drizzle a couple of spoonfuls of reduced sauce over each pear and serve.
Annette Nielsen is a food writer, editor, community organizer and activist on behalf of regional agriculture. She recently edited Northern Comfort and Northern Bounty, two seasonally-based cookbooks for Adirondack Life Magazine. You can follow her on twitter @The_Kitchen_Cab. A native of Northville, she lives in Salem, New York with her husband and son.