Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Cassoulet Castelnaudary style
Cassoulet is a traditional southwestern French dish that has enchanted diners since the Hundred-Year-War between France and England. As tradition would have it, during that war, the siege of Castelnaudary by the English threatened starvation to the town, so the locals pooled all of their food sources to feed the soldiers defending them against the English. Bacon fat, broad beans, sausages and other meats were all stewed together in a large pan. Reinvigorated by this meal, the soldiers drove the English out of the region all the way to the English Channel!
Castelnaudary is considered one of the three cities that make authentic cassoulet, the other two being Toulouse and Carcassonne. The Castelnaudary cassoulet, the oldest, is a rich and savory ragout of meats and white lingot beans, made with ribbons of fatty pork skin, pork chunks, pork sausages and confit of duck or goose, a roasted duck or goose breast (optional), lingot beans, vegetables and spices, slow cooked for a very long time in an earthenware cassole (the clay cooking vessel from which the dish got its name). The cassoles were originally made in Issel, a small village only 5 miles from Castelnaudary, by an Italian potter in 1377.
Convention has it that the Carcassonne variety contains leg of mutton and partridge; and the cassoulet of Toulouse includes fresh lard, mutton, local garlic sausage, and duck or goose. A celebrated turn-of-the-century French chef, wrote that cassoulet was the "God" of Occitan cuisine, with three incarnations "God the Father, which is the cassoulet of Castelnaudary; God the Son, which is that of Carcassonne; and the Holy Spirit, which is that of Toulouse".
The duck or goose confit is supposed to be simmered in melted duck fat. This is hardly a staple in most home kitchens but you could order it on-line from a specialty producer like D’ Artagnan or Les Trois Petits Cochons if you live in the USA. Another secret to cassoulet is pigskin. It gives the beans an unctuous, creamy texture. The appropriate texture is impossible to create without pigskin. Even if you change everything else in the recipe you must keep the pigskin.
List of Ingredients:
1 1/2 pound lingot beans – or white broad beans
4 ounces fresh pork skin rolled up and tied
1/2 pound cubed salt pork belly
2 carrots, scraped and sliced
1 onion, peeled and stuck with 6 cloves
3 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
1 bunch fresh herbs: parsley, thyme, rosemary and fennel tied together
6 black peppercorns, crushed
2 legs of preserved duck or goose confit, with its dripping
1/2 pound lean pork cut into large pieces
1/2 pound Saucisse de Toulouse or any garlic-flavored fresh pork sausage
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 onions, chopped
2 large tomatoes, skinned and chopped
1/2 pound dried spicy garlic sausage
salt and pepper
You will need a heavy saucepan, a frying pan, and a cassole or a large earthenware pot with a lid. Check the dry beans for bits of gravel, and then put them to soak overnight in cold water.
The next day, drain the beans and put them into a saucepan with the rest of the "initial cooking" ingredients. Cover everything with fresh water, bring to a boil, and skim off the foam which rises. Turn down the heat and simmer the beans for an hour, until they are soft but still whole, adding more boiling water if necessary.
Meanwhile, prepare the meats in the "second cooking" group. Put the preserved legs of goose or duck into a frying pan and melt off the drippings. Take out and reserve the legs. Fry the pork with the garlic in the goose/duck drippings, until browned. Remove and reserve. Fry the onions. Drain off the fat which remains and save it for finishing.
When the beans are ready, remove and discard the onion and the bunch of herbs and bay leaves. Untie and lay the pork skin (with the fat side down) in the base of the earthenware cassole. Layer the beans with the meats, onions, tomatoes, and garlic sausage into the cassole, finishing with the reserved confit legs and a layer of beans. Long, slow cooking is the trick to success. Cover the pot and put it in a preheated 275 °F oven for 2 hours (if the beans get too dry, pour in a little boiling water -- the beans will harden if you use cold water).
At the end of this time, take the lid off the cassole for the final stage, which will take another 2 hours (completing four hours).
Pour a tablespoonful of the melted goose fat over the surface of the cassole. Increase the oven heat to 325 °F and return the dish uncovered to the oven. It will take about half an hour to form a beautiful crust. Break it with a spoon and stir it into the beans. Tradition states the crust should be broken seven times to achieve the perfect dish.
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