Cassoulet is the dish most associated with the Languedoc and is a bean stew of mighty proportions and capable all by itself of warding off the severest of winters. Legend has it that it also warded off The Black Prince and his army at the siege of Castelnaudary in 1355 when the locals, threatened by famine, put together whatever food they could assemble to fortify their troops for battle.
The word cassoulet refers to the type of earthenware dish called cassole which was much used not only in Languedoc but also across the Pyrenees where there are similar bean-based dishes. Tinned cassoulet is readily available in all French supermarkets but there is nothing like making your own, adapting the recipe along the way. Indeed there at least as many recipes as there are cooks, providing limitless scope for lively discussion and debate.
Here though is my take on cassoulet for which you will need a large, preferably earthenware pot, the inside of which will be rubbed with garlic.
- 1lb white dry haricot beans soaked overnight in plenty of water
- One tin of plum tomatoes (though some maintain that true cassoulet should never have tomatoes)
- One bouquet garni
- One medium sized onion
- One carrot
- One celery stick
- Garlic ad lib
- Salt and pepper
- Goose or duck fat or olive oil
For the meat
- One Toulouse sausage per person is de rigueur. Thereafter depends on taste and tradition. Cassoulet from Carcassonne often includes partridge while mutton or lamb is traditionally used, together with pork, in Toulouse.
- I would use either duck or goose, preferably legs and better still prepared as confit or slow cooked in their own fat, but leftover roast duck, should such a thing exist would do admirably. Also best to remove skin.
- You will also need about half a pound of pork rind and the same of belly of pork or streaky bacon.
- If lamb is used, I like the texture of fillet, in which case add one pound.
- Remove and discard skin of bacon or pork belly. Cut into small cubes. Thinly slice the lamb fillet. Sausages can be cut into 1 inch slices or left whole.
- Drain and rinse the beans and transfer to a saucepan and cover with water. Add bouquet garni, rind, belly of pork or bacon, bring to the boil and simmer for half an hour or so, making sure to remove the scum.
- Turn on oven to low setting, something like gas mark 2 or equivalent (gas mark 300ºF/150ºC).
- Heat fat in a pan and barely brown sausage and lamb, reduce flame and add finely chopped onion, celery, carrots, garlic, some coarsely chopped, some left whole, cover and leave on a low flame for a few minutes to sweat.
- Drain beans and discard water. Add chopped tomatoes and transfer tom large oven-proof pot. Add rest of the meat and vegetable mix. Add enough water to more or less cover. Add salt and plenty of pepper and maybe more garlic. Stir, cover and place in oven. Cook for at least two hours, occasionally skimming off any scum.
- Take the cassoulet out of the oven. Add more liquid if necessary. Final consistency should be fairly thick and creamy. Give it a good stir and bury poultry pieces. Season as required and return to the oven for a further hour or so.
Texture should be creamy and the meats, very soft. And that is about it. To improve presentation, remove cassoulet from the oven and sprinkle with a mix of breadcrumbs, goose fat, pepper and finely chopped garlic. Put back in the oven for a final half an hour with the lid off. Serve piping hot. In restaurants, the first spoonful is invariably scalding hot. Nothing more needed except a decent baguette to mop up the sauce and of course some good red wine from Languedoc.