Elegant cassoulet warms any winter's day
On a brisk Boston night when fall raced toward winter, I discovered cassoulet.
It seemed perfectly suited for the night, a blend of beans, seasoning and meat that once sustained French peasants and now turns up on bistro menus and, most regrettably, in quick-fix slow-cooker recipe files.
Hamersley’s Bistro, a preserve of casual French food in Boston’s South End, serves its cassoulet in a wide, flat soup bowl, just out of the oven. It’s a dish to linger over with a glass of red wine, spooning up white beans, duck confit and garlicky sausage and indulging in a taste of southwest France in an improbable location.
Gordon Hamersley trained with Wolfgang Puck at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, worked as a sous chef for Boston chef/restaurateur Lydia Shire and lived in Nice before opening the bistro with his wife, Fiona. It is casually elegant, a clean, modern space with traditional French food and more contemporary offerings that borrow from other cuisines.
The current menu offers oysters in the style of Pierre and Jean Troisgros, chefs famed for the nouvelle cuisine served at their Michelin three-star restaurant in Roanne, France, as well as a curried carrot and lentil soup with mint raita. But it is not a fusion fiasco. Care for the ingredients and preparation shows through.
So it was with the cassoulet, a dish that demands time, not shortcuts. Beans soaked before cooking, not spooned from a can. Duck confit if at all possible, and not boned and bland chicken thighs. Garlic-flavored pork sausage, not kielbasa.
I’ve tried cassoulet prepared over a long Saturday afternoon and evening spent in the kitchen, and another assembled from mostly processed foods thrown into a slow cooker to sort themselves out.
The hands-on version proved its worth as the serving spoon reached through a crust thickened with fresh breadcrumbs and dipped up creamy white beans with a luscious hunk of Berkshire pork shoulder. The slow cooker version was horrid, a soupy mess speckled with dried oregano leaves.
Cassoulet started as a simple dish prepared from foods on hand: Dried beans, stale bread, fatty cuts of meat that needed braising to coax out their tenderness and flavor. In America, it takes more work, starting with sourcing hard-to-find ingredients such as duck confit. Hamersley’s recipe for confit calls for four to five pounds of rendered duck fat or fresh pork lard, something that’s out of reach for home cooks. Taking a shortcut here, with prepared confit from a store — Costco stocked it over the holidays and some gourmet grocers carry it throughout the year — makes sense.
Make no mistake, though. Cassoulet needs time and love to turn out at its best. And what better way to spend a cold winter day, than cooking up a way to ward off the chill?
Hamersley’s Cassoulet With Pork, Duck Confit and Sausage
Serves 8 to 10
Notes: You’ll need to soak the beans overnight before starting to cook, so make sure to leave time for this step.
To make fresh bread crumbs, start with a baguette or loaf of good-quality French bread. Buy the loaf a day or two before you plan to make the bread crumbs. Otherwise, cut loaf into small chunks and sit out for several hours, until slightly hardened. Pulse the chunks in a food processor until they break down into coarse crumbs. Use immediately or freeze for later use.
2 pounds flageolet, Great Northern or cannelloni beans, soaked overnight and
1 to 1½ pounds boneless pork butt (shoulder), cut into pieces, about 2 inches square
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons duck fat or vegetable oil
1 medium onion, cut into a medium dice
8 to 10 whole garlic cloves
1 carrot, cut into a medium dice
½ pound sliced bacon, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh marjoram
One 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, drained (about 1½ cups)
2 cups dry white wine
6 cups veal stock or chicken broth
1 to 1 ½ pounds sweet Italian sausages
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 duck confit legs, cut at the joint between the thigh and drumstick, skin and excess fat removed
2 cups coarse bread crumbs
Put the beans in a large pot and add enough water to cover by about 3 inches. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook the beans, skimming off any foam that comes to the surface, for 30 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water. (The beans will not be cooked through at this point.)
Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Season the pork with the pepper. Heat the duck fat or vegetable oil in a very large (at least 6½ quart), heavy, ovenproof pot over medium-high heat. Add the pork and brown it well on all sides, about 10 minutes total.
Add the onion, garlic, carrot and bacon and cook, stirring, until the bacon has rendered some of its fat but has not colored, about 5 minutes. Add the thyme, marjoram, drained beans, tomatoes, white wine and veal stock. Bring to a boil, cover and cook in the oven for 1½ hours.
While the cassoulet is cooking, put the sausage in a high-sided sauté pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer. Check until the meat is cooked through, 6 to 10 minutes. Allow the sausage to cool and then cut it into 1-inch pieces. Refrigerate until ready to use.
After 1½ hours, uncover the cassoulet; it should still look quite soupy. Add the salt. Continue to cook, uncovered, until the pork and beans are very tender, another 30 to 45 minutes. The cassoulet should appear drier and you should see mostly beans, vegetables and meat. If there is a lot of liquid left, bring the cassoulet to a boil on the stove and let it boil for a few minutes. This is important; if the cassoulet is too wet, the bread-crumb topping will not get crisp.
Add the duck legs and sausage to the pot and stir gently with a wooden spoon so as
not to break up the beans and meat. Allow the cassoulet to cool for a half hour. (This
cooling will allow a thin skin to form on the surface, which will help keep the bread
crumbs afloat.) Sprinkle the top of the cassoulet with a thin layer of bread crumbs. Raise
the oven temperature to 375 degrees F and cook the cassoulet, uncovered, until the
sausage and duck heat through and the bread crumbs form a golden brown crust, 20 to
— From “Bistro Cooking at Home” by Gordon Hamersley With Joanne McAllister Smart (Broadway Books, $35)