Friday, 22 October 2010

CASSOULET

Cassoulet is a speciality of the Languedoc region of France, where white beans are cooked slowly with a variety of meat. Along with coq au vin and poulet au vinaigre, this is one of the few classic French dishes that I make fairly regularly.

Made properly, Cassoulet is a very fatty dish, but it is the fat that makes it so delicious. The beans become soft with slow cooking, while the meat (I use duck) is tender and succulent, and falls easily from the bones. It is a very comforting dish, entirely appropriate for a chilly evening in late October. It requires no other accompaniment than a good bottle of Burgundy.

When I was in my teens, I used to visit France quite regularly with my parents, and we always bought tins of Cassoulet from the supermarket back with us. Even the most bog-standard Monoprix version contained at least a few of the key ingredients: pork belly and Toulouse sausages. My mother would add duck or pork pieces to turn it into a really fine dish. I suppose this is a recipe that I learnt from her: I used to help her, spiking the onion with cloves and chopping the bacon rind. I have adapted Claudia Roden's recipe, from her book 'Mediterranean Cookery', one of my "desert island cookbooks". Preparing it for supper tonight, I made it at midday, after I'd finished teaching for the morning, and it infused my house with the most wonderful clove-scented fug, cosy and autumnal.

Don't be daunted by the long list of ingredients - this is simple one-pot cookery par excellence!

Serves 4

4 duck joints (leg is best)
125g pork rind, pancetta or streaky bacon, chopped. Or bacon smoked lardons, if you're feeling lazy!
1 medium onion stuck with 3 cloves, plus 1 medium onion chopped
2 x 400g cans of white haricot or Cannellini beans, drained
125g tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or 125g tinned chopped tomatoes
1 large carrot, sliced
4 garlic cloves, crushed
a sprig of thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
2-3 tbsps olive oil, or lard, if you want to be really authentic
4 Toulouse or Cumberland-type coarse-cut pure pork sausage (Waitrose now do a Toulouse sausage)
2 tbsps tomato puree
Salt and pepper
200 ml dry white wine
Enough fine breadcrumbs to cover the top

I use a large Le Creuset casserole dish for this.

Start by seasoning the duck joints, and then brown them in a non-stick frying pan. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in the Le Creuset, or similar, and brown the sausages. Add the chopped onion and garlic, carrots, thyme and bay, and the clove-stuck onion. Pour the oil from the duck joints into the casserole. Then stir in the white beans, tomatoes and tomato puree. Check seasoning. Add the duck pieces and white wine and then cover with water. Bring up to the boil on the hob and allow to simmer, uncovered for an hour or so, or until the beans are tender or still firm. Meanwhile, set the oven to about 180C. Cover the top of the cassoulet with breadcrumbs and put in the oven until a golden crust has formed. Serve hot.

Variations:
  • Add 150g boiling sausage (preferably garlic), cut into pieces, during the last 10 mins of cooking on the hob.
  • Add 750g boned shoulder or breast of lamb. Brown it in the same fat as the duck.
  • Use goose instead of duck.

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