[Smashy the Hammer] [An Aspiring Luddite]
I carry no phone
An aspiring Luddite
In a wired world.
[Jeff Berry]
Jeff Berry is an early adopter of the Internet and the Web, a late adopter of Twitter, and declines to adopt Facebook. With the death of Google+, he's experimenting with federated platforms. He admins a medievalist Mastodon instance, and can found on the PlusPora diaspora pod. He hates cell-phones.

Cassoulet, My Way (and Campfire Cassoulet)
4 April 2013
[Cassoulet]

I don't recall where I first encountered cassoulet. It was not in France, and it wasn't at Les Halles in NYC, although theirs is pretty good. It may very well have been in Howard Hillman's excellent Great Peasant Dishes of the World. Whether that was actually my first encounter or not, the recipe for cassoulet in that book has served as a template for me over the years, although, of course, I modify it depending on my mood and what I've got to hand by way of ingredients.

Cassoulet, like a good gratin, is a deceptively simple dish. The essence of it is beans, slow cooked with a variety of meats, and ideally with "variety meats." Meat selection is very much a matter of personal preference, but I feel that it is absolutely essential to include enough ham hocks. Without the fat and gelatin from the hocks, the texture will lack the unctuousness which elevates a cassoulet from something merely good into something sublime.

This dish of "French Franks'n'Beans," as a friend's child called it, mostly to annoy me, but always after she'd loaded her plate, has become a fixture at a mass medieval camping event we attend most years. Campfire cassoulet is a perfect dish for such things, since it scales nicely (if you have a large enough pot) and is tolerant of long cooking times - it's hard to overcook a cassoulet. The richness and saltiness also hit the spot after a hard day of sweating and swordfighting.

Like many other peasant dishes, cassoulet is sometimes even better as leftovers on subsequent days, and it freezes well. The only drawback to it is the long cooking time. It's best made when you can putter with it over a lazy afternoon, sipping on a beer or a glass of wine, and then serve it up to a few (or thirty) good friends. [Lots of pictures]

Cassoulet

Soak your beans for a few hours or overnight. As mentioned above, I use Great Northern beans because they're fairly easy to find, and Hillman says they're a good substitute for white haricot beans which are not fairly easy to find in the US. You could use other beans, of course, but it would significantly alter the complexion of the dish.

Coin your sausage. Once again, you can use any sort of sausage you like, although you want something firm which won't dissolve after a few hours in a stew. Something with some garlic is good, too. Smoked is nice. I almost inevitably use kielbasa or something like it. Cut your other meats into bite-sized pieces, say 1" or 1.5" cubes, if appropriate. I've used chicken, pork, duck that hasn't been confited, smoked turkey legs and who knows what else. Again, it's about preference. In this case, I had confit which was mostly falling apart so I didn't worry about cutting it up. I also don't generally mess with cutting my hocks. This one was a beauty, too.

Heat some of the confit fat, or some other lipid if you don't have confit, and brown your meats in batches. Then toss in the onion and let it go for a minute or two, then add the garlic and give it another minute or so. Usually I use fresh garlic, but in a truly astonishing lapse, I had none. I used some roasted garlic instead, and it worked out well enough, but fresh is to be preferred. Then add the tomatoes, the spices, the wine and the lemon juice. Drop the heat, let it all simmer together for 15 minutes or so. Somewhere in here, start preheating the oven to 350F.

Pull out the bay leaves. Add the beans and meat and enough stock to cover the beans, with some extra on top. Cover, and put the whole thing in the oven. The next step takes place in about two-and-a-half hours. It wouldn't hurt to check on it after an hour or so, though, just to make sure it doesn't need more stock. Give it a stir while you're in there.

Around the 2.5 hour mark, melt some butter in a skillet and brown up some breadcrumbs. Pull the cassoulet out of the oven and kick the heat up to 325F. Sprinkle the crumbs on and put the cassoulet back in the oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes. Brown up some more bread crumbs. Pull the cassoulet out, push the bread crumbs under the surface, sprinkle the new bread crumbs on top, and then back in for another 15 minutes. Pull it out, push those crumbs under, and serve.

Campfire Cassoulet

When making cassoulet over an open fire for thirty people, I streamline the process - which, of course, you could also do at home. The ingredients work out to something like this:

The process is similar to that outlined above. I start by rendering down the bacon/fatback, then brown the meats. Then cook the onions and then the garlic. Then add the wine, tomatoes and lemon juice. (You'll note that I list no other spices. If there are some around, I'll add them, but I don't usually buy a jar of bay leaves, just to use one, for instance.)

Then beans, meat and stock go back into the pot. Cover and cook until you're ready to serve. I forego the bread crumb crust entirely. Since it's being cooked over an open fire, it requires a lot more checking and stirring than an oven-cooked version. You don't want it to burn on the bottom.

This is good for breakfast or in sandwiches. One memorable year we cobbled together a sort of bread oven and made cassoulet pizza. Or, of course, you could just reheat the leftovers and have them for dinner again.


© 2013 Jeff Berry
The Aspiring Luddite