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A Christmas Cassoulet (Day 1)

If you’re looking for a Dickens of a holiday feast, look no further! While this is an intensive labor of love, and something I indulge in only every so often for special occasions; this holiday season seems to call to be rung in with a certain je ne sais quoi. This of course, can only mean that ultimate comfort food, The King, Le Roi: cassoulet!
Even if it’s something you have neither the time nor the desire to immerse yourself in this holiday (or any holiday), then allow the step-by-step instructions I’ll be sharing all this week for my version  serve as inspiration for the epicurious all year long. It is a taste of Christmas Past.

This traditional bean casserole served with sausage and duck or goose lies at the heart of country cooking from the Gascony region of France. It takes its name from the earthenware pot in which it is cooked and sometimes served. The cassole comes in many shapes and sizes from an inverted cone-like container to a deep wide pot. The idea is to expose as much surface area as possible to maximize the delicate crust that forms while this dish slowly simmers all day long. The cassoulet can be prepared up to several days ahead of time and kept refrigerated until it is ready to bake all day over low heat in the oven.

Haricot Tarbais

Traditional Haricot Tarbais white beans

There are as many versions of “true” cassoulet as there are gumbos! But just like a true gumbo must have a proper roux, a true cassoulet must include the Haricot Tarbais white bean. Since these can be difficult to find, feel free to use a similar large, dried white bean. You can add as much or as little poultry, meat, and sausage as you like. As this was traditionally peasant food, it was primarily a bean stew; a way to extend the splurge for meat at the holiday. Vary to suite your taste and  Bon Appetit!

• 3 pounds Haricot Tarbais, or another dried white bean like Great Northern
• 1 ham hock
• 1½ pounds boneless pork shoulder
• 3 tablespoons kosher salt
• 1 tablespoon brown sugar
• 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
• 12 ounces ventrèche or pancetta
• 4 ounces bacon, cut into small cubes, lardon style
• 1 head of garlic, cloves removed, peeled and roughly chopped
• 2 cups sliced onions (2 to 3 medium onions) +1 whole small onion
• 6 cloves
• 1 carrot, chopped
• 1 celery rib, chopped
• 1 bouquet garni or sachet: (parsley, thyme, bay leaf, peppercorns, oregano; wrapped in cheesecloth and tied off)
• 1½ pounds duck confit (about six duck legs)
• 6 ounces demi-glace
• ¼ cup tomato paste
• 1 can (35 ounces) Italian plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped
• 1 pound duck Armagnac sausage (may substitute fresh chorizo)
• 1 pound garlic sausage
• 2 cups of white wine like Sancerre or Sauvignon Blanc
• 2 cups duck stock (may substitute chicken stock)
• 1/4 cup duck fat (at room temperature) [optional] • 1 cup panko bread crumbs
• 2 tablespoons butter
• olive oil
• salt and pepper to season
• ¼ cup parsley, finely chopped for garnish

Mix the kosher salt, brown sugar and freshly ground pepper together. Coat the ham hock and allow that to rest in the refrigerator at least overnight and up to three days. The longer the rest, the better the flavor.

Seasoned ham hock

Pick over the beans to remove any small pebbles or field debris. Rinse the beans and place in a large container and cover with several inches of water. Allow the beans to soak overnight, and check occasionally; adding more water as needed to make sure that they are covered by least several inches.
If you do not have a cassole, use any large wide pot with a large surface area and some depth, like a Dutch oven. Drain the beans and rinse thoroughly. Place them in a large pot with the ventrèche or pancetta, garlic, carrots, celery, bouquet garni, ham hock and one whole onion studded with the cloves and bay leaf. The onion, clove, and bay leaf is known as an onion pique or oignon piqué in French cooking.

oignon piqué

Cover with 2 to 3 inches of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat and continue to simmer for about one to one and half hours; until the beans just begin to tenderize.
While the beans are cooking, trim the pork shoulder of any excess fat. Cut into approximately a half dozen evenly sized pieces, season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Ready to cook the beans

Ready to cook the beans

Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil. When the oil is hot, add the pork and quickly brown on all sides and remove. Do not fully cook the pork, just brown it. In a similar fashion, brown all the sausages and the bacon and remove. Reserve any fat left in the pan. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper, and cook until golden brown, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain off any excess fat.

Add the wine and continue to cook over medium heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Remove the onions and leave any liquid. To the remaining liquid add the tomato paste, demi-glace and stock, mix well with a whisk making sure the demi-glace is dissolved. Once everything is dissolved in the liquid, remove and set aside.

Sachet of fresh herbs and spices

Sachet of fresh herbs and spices

When the beans are done, drain the beans and discard the onion with the cloves and the bouquet garni. Remove the ventrèche or pancetta and cut into half-inch cubes, set aside. Remove the ham hock and reserve the meat.

Lightly grease the cassole or other large pot, preferably with duck fat. Cut the cooled sausages into thirds. Divide the bean mixture in half. Place half the bean mixture into the pot. Add the duck confit, sausages, ventrèche or pancetta, pork (including previously reserved ham hock), onions, tomatoes and bacon.

Assembling cassoulet

Assembling cassoulet

Drizzle with any remaining duck fat and then cover with the remaining beans. Pour the tomato paste/demi-glace mixture over the top. At this point, the cassoulet may be covered and stored in the refrigerator for up to three days. Prior to finishing cooking, remove the cassoulet from the refrigerator and allow it to come back up to room temperature.

Adding tomato sauce

Adding tomato sauce prior to letting the cassoulet rest

Preheat the oven to 225°F. Bake for 8 to 10 hours. Check frequently to make sure that it is not drying out; add more stock or water as needed. As of the crust forms, push it down and roughly break it apart as you check on the consistency of the cassoulet; it should be stew like. Skim off any fat that rises to the top as the cassoulet cooks. If the duck confit used came on the bone, like duck legs, remove the bones when the meat easily slides off. Discard the bones. During the process you should check on it at least three times. Many traditional cooks will insist that the cassoulet is not ready until the crust has been broken and reformed at least seven to eight times.

When the cassoulet is nearing completion, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the panko and toast until lightly brown. Season with salt and pepper and remove.
The cassoulet should be ready when the pork easily pulls apart with a fork. At this point increase the oven temperature to 400°F. Break the crust one more time and spread the panko across the top. Cook for an additional forty-five minutes until the crust is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool 15 to 30 minutes. Top each serving with parsley. Serves 12 to 14.

Finished cassoulet

Finished cassoulet

Day 1: Here are some of the first, preparatory steps. Soak the beans and season the ham hock.

Haricot Tarbais Beans: These are worth getting if you can find them. They were brought back to France from the Americas during the early European exploration of the New World. They take their name from the town of Tarbes, located in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southwestern France, where they were planted and continue to thrive. They have a thin skin and a sweet, hearty flavor. During the long, slow cooking process, most of the beans will remain whole but a portion will burst and the starches released help thicken the stew as well as add additional layers of flavor.


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