Photos: left to right, soupe au pistou, cassoulet, cassoulet
Photos: Clifford A. Wright
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Yield: Makes 12 servings
Preparation Time: 8 hours
The most famous preparation of Languedoc in southwest France is undoubtedly cassoulet. I have eaten many cassoulets and I'm not sure of my favorite, but I remember well the experience of a great cassoulet. My cassoulet de Castelnaudary came in a large earthenware casserole with an inviting golden crust of breadcrumbs. I plunged my spoon into the crust and noticed the white haricot beans, soft and separate. The tomato sauce was not heavy or in great evidence but its influence was clearly there. The meat, confit of duck, pork, and Toulouse sausage, was well cooked, nearly falling to pieces when touched with my fork. The cassoulet was spicier than I expected, and the broth was not a sauce but almost soupy and very rich. The flavors are incredible, strong, luscious, and fatty.
My recipe devolves from years of patient experimenting. For the most part I began with an idea given to me by Odile Lacarrière, my father's neighbor in Frayssinet, the little farming hamlet where he lived in the Lot in southwest France. Odile's husband Robert is a sheep farmer and, as with all farm wives, she has strong opinions about food. I have amended her basic suggestions to fit my fantasy of the perfect cassoulet, based on that cassoulet I had at the Hotel Restaurant du Centre et du Lauragais in Castelnaudary. Odile's cassoulet is quite straightforward. She makes a rough-and-ready everyday type of dish with a pound of dried white beans, not too small she says, collet de mouton (mutton neck), poitrine fumé (smoked pork breast), echine de porc (pork back), saucisse de Toulouse (pork sausages from Toulouse), and confit de canard (fat-preserved duck). She simmers the meats in water on the stove top until done, flavored with garlic, tomatoes, onions, and carrots.
How easy it all seemed when I was cooking cassoulet at my father's farmhouse in France where the saucisse de Toulouse, duck confit, pig's knuckles, and salted pork breast can be found at the local boucherie. For those of us trying to capture authentic tastes here at home, we must go through some rigmarole, and I apologize for that, but this recipe will be worth it--you will eat very happily, and your guests will think you are a genius. It would be best to think about preparing an authentic cassoulet at least several months in advance so you can prepare the saucisse de Toulouse and duck confit. If this is simply too much work for you, then replace the Toulouse sausage with mild Italian sausage and get the confit through Internet food sites such as at Amazon.
My recipe is a rich, authentic, full-bodied feast best served around two in the afternoon on a very cold winter day to your friends. Cassoulet is heavy. It is said that you can reduce the amount of flatulence often associated with eating beans by following the instructions that I provide, although frankly I'm not convinced it accomplishes anything.
If you wish to make a full production of a fête languedocienne, follow the cassoulet with a salade tiéde de foie et gésiers de canard (page 194 of my A Mediterranean Feast) and les oreillettes montpellieraines (page 164 of my A Mediterranean Feast) for a sweet. Cassoulet is a forgiving preparation and even if you mess up you'll be rewarded, but remember, cassoulet is what slow food is all about--it takes time to prepare and it should be enjoyed slowly.
You can read more about cassoulet and its origin in “cassoulet” in “France” under Food History. The recipes for homemade confit de canard and saucisse de Toulouse can also be found in A Mediterranean Feast.
2 pounds raw ham hocks, semi-salted with 1 cup coarse salt (see Note 1)
2 pounds medium-size dried white haricot or Great Northern white beans (about 4 cups), soaked in water to cover overnight
2 pounds confit de canard (homemade or store bought)
1/2 pound salt pork (brisket cut)
1/4 pound pancetta (not an authentic ingredient, but meant to replace the traditional petit salé, a lean salt pork)
1 pound fresh pork skin (see Note 2)
1/2 cup duck fat from the confit
1 1/2 pounds saucisse de Toulouse
1 3/4 pounds pork shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into smaller pieces (ask the butcher to do this)
1 1/2 pounds mutton or lamb shoulder, trimmed of fat and cut into smaller pieces (ask the butcher to do this)
2 medium onions, peeled, and each studded with 2 cloves
1 large carrot, sliced into rounds
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped
3 tablespoons tomato paste
10 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
Bouquet garni, tied in cheesecloth, consisting of 10 sprigs fresh parsley, 10 sprigs fresh thyme, and 2 bay leaves
2 quarts bottled imported Evian or any bottled spring water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs made from a French baguette in a food processor with the crust
- Prepare the semi-salted ham hocks with the salt.
- Drain the beans. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and blanch the beans for 5 minutes. Drain and let them soak in cold water to cover for 1 hour. Set the terrine or casserole that contains the duck confit in a pan of hot water so the duck fat softens.
- Bring a large saucepan of water to a gentle boil and blanch the salt pork and pancetta for 10 minutes. Drain and slice the skin off the salt pork. Slice the salt pork and dice the pancetta. Set aside. Reserve the salt pork skin with the fresh pork skin.
- In a 6- to 8-quart casserole or stockpot, melt 5 tablespoons duck fat from the confit terrine over a medium heat. Puncture the saucisse de Toulouse with corn cob holders or toothpicks so it doesn't burst while cooking. Brown the sausage, about 10 minutes, turning occasionally. Remove the sausage and set aside. Brown the pork shoulder cubes in the same casserole, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove and set aside. Brown the ham hocks in the casserole, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside. Brown the mutton shoulder, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove and set aside. Brown the salt pork and pancetta, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside. Brown the duck confit, about 4 minutes. Remove the duck and set aside with the other meats.
- Add the clove-studded onions and sliced carrot to the casserole and cook until the onions turn color, 4 to 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, bouquet garni, bottled water, and some salt and pepper. Return all the meats, including the duck to the pan, along with the fresh and salt pork skins. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the meats are tender, about 2 hours.
- Remove the ham hock, salt pork, Toulouse sausage, pork shoulder, lamb shoulder, and duck. Cut the meat off all the bones. Chop the salt pork. Slice the sausage into thick rounds. Remove the bones from the duck. Discard the bones and remove any fat from the meat, reserving the fat from the ham hocks. Strain the broth through a colander or conical strainer, discarding the vegetables and saving the broth.
- Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
- Line the bottom of a heavy 6- to 8-quart casserole (it can be the same one you just used, thoroughly washed and dried) with the pork skins, fat side down, and the fat from the ham hocks. Pour in half the beans, then layer the meat from the pork shoulder, ham hock, lamb shoulder, duck confit, salt pork, pancetta, and the sausages on top. Cover with the remaining beans. Pour enough of the reserved broth into the casserole until it just reaches the top of the beans. Sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs and dot or drizzle the remaining 3 tablespoons duck fat. Bake, uncovered, until the crust is golden brown, breaking the crust seven times by pushing down slightly with the back of a ladle, about 4 hours. Serve immediately after the seventh time.
Note 1: Roll the ham hocks in the coarse salt and arrange in a glass or ceramic bowl or tray. Leave in the refrigerator for 2 days. Wash the salt off before using in Step 4.
Note 2: The fresh pork skin is an essential flavoring for cassoulet. If you are unable to get it from your butcher use the rind from a piece of fat back. Blanch for 5 minutes in boiling water to soften it and remove the salt.
Soupe au Pistou
Soup with Pesto
Yield: Makes 8 servings
Preparation Time: 2 hours
This famous soup from Provence is literally “soup with pesto.” But, oh my, how much more it is than that. Rich with vegetables in the late spring and summer it’s one of the most satisfying of soups. And that dollop of pesto is what truly makes the soup remarkable and so much more than vegetable soup. Pistou is the Provençal word for “pounded” derived, just as the pesto of Liguria, from the Latin pestare, meaning the same. In fact, pesto and pistou, are the same thing, a condiment of pounded basil, pine nuts, garlic, and olive oil. One of the earliest descriptions we have of something similar comes from the Roman poet Virgil who writes in verse in his Eclogue II,
“now even the cattle court the cooling shade
And the green lizard hides him in the thorn:
Now for tired mowers, with the fierce heat spent,
Pounds Thestilis her mess of savory herbs, wild thyme and garlic.”
This famous Provençal soup, la soupo-pistou in the local dialect, is the French version of the Genoese-style minestrone, the mother-soup, except here it is basically a vegetable soup with pesto. It’s lighter, relatively, than the minestrone. You will first have to make the pesto before you serve this popular soup. The Provençal sometimes put tomatoes in their pesto. Some people like to grate Swiss cheese on top of the soup once it’s cooked.
1 cup dried small white beans, soaked in water to cover for 6 hours, drained
6 quarts water
2 tablespoons salt and more as needed
1 pound green beans, trimmed and cut into 3/8-inch thick pieces
1/2 pound boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold, red potatoes or white potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/8-inch dice
3/4 pound tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped coarsely
1/2 pound carrots, scraped and cut into 3/4-inch dice
1/2 pound zucchini, cut into 3/8-inch dice
2 leeks, white and light green part only, split lengthwise, washed well, thinly sliced
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup ditali or any small tubular soup macaroni
1 cup pesto, with the addition of 1 large peeled and seeded mashed small tomato
- Place the white beans in a pot and cover with 3 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce to medium and cook, salting the water a bit, until tender, 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Drain and set the beans aside.
- Meanwhile, in a large stockpot, bring the remaining 3 quarts of water to a boil over high heat, then add the green beans, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, leeks, thyme, and bay leaf, reduce the heat to medium-low, then stir 2 tablespoons salt, the pepper, and the olive oil and simmer, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 30 minutes. After the soup has been cooking 15 minutes add the pasta and reserved beans and continue cooking until the pasta is soft too. Serve hot with the pesto passed at the table as everyone likes to put in their own quantity of pesto.
Note: to make pesto, in a large mortar pound 1 to 1 1/2 bunches fresh basil (80 medium to large leaves), washed and thoroughly dried, 2 large garlic cloves, pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, 3 tablespoons freshly grated pecorino cheese while slowly drizzling in ½ cup extra virgin olive oil. Start by pushing the pestle down to break down the basil leaves then start pounding gently. This may take 9 to 12 minutes of pounding.