What a nice, long run it’s had.
In 1355, cassoulet was born in the South of France, the Languedoc region to be exact.
Cassoulet is a mixture of white beans and meats and if you are a hunter, wild birds, if you’re not, duck confit. The whole dish sometimes is topped with breadcrumbs that slightly thicken the dish.
In 2013, more than 600 years later, it is still the symbol of autumn, of comfort food and of the best of peasant cooking.
European peasant food, traditional American Southern cooking, and midwestern farm cooking all have the same essential base philosophy: use every bit of the animal you raise and kill for food, grow your own vegetables if possible, never waste, preserve for the winter, and always evolve with the changing food circumstances.
There is a different version of cassoulet in every village in the Languedoc: Castelnaudry, Carcassonne, Toulouse. And I suspect there is a different version for every household in those cities.
So make your own version of cassoulet — the Kansas City version.
For instance, I like to roast a whole duck instead of using duck confit — cooked, preserved leg and thigh sections — because I like to tear up the crispy skin into the mix.
Recently I added pork belly to the recipe.
People swear by Italian sausage, some version of Andouille, some other version of a French sausage or no Kielbasa.
Most cooks use Great Northern beans but there are many who say only French Tarbais Haricot Blanc will do.
Some French villages use goose confit instead of duck. Others cook a lamb shoulder and add that to the mix.
For one of my mysteries, I created a beef version made by a Texas cowboy type character and named it Cowboy Cassoulet.
None of these versions is right or wrong. Every version reflects something about the person and the region that created it.
And that is the best kind of food, the kind that lets us give a little of ourselves to everything we cook, not just follow a recipe to the letter.
Here are my two versions of cassoulet. Now go create your own.Cowboy Cassoulet 5 pounds beef stew meat Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 cinnamon sticks 4-5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced 2-4 dried ancho chilies, soaked in warm water for at least 30 minutes 2 pounds dried Great Northern beans 2 pounds hot or mild Italian sausages 6 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 2 yellow onions, peeled and diced 2 large carrots, peeled and diced 4 stalks celery, diced 1 28-ounce can of tomatoes, diced Chicken stock, up to 2 quarts 2-3 cups fresh breadcrumbs, depending on the surface of your baking dish 1 cup chopped parsley
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large roasting pan, toss the meat with salt and pepper, add the cinnamon sticks, garlic and chilies with the soaking water. Cover and roast 2 to 3 hours, until the meat is tender. Cool and refrigerate, removing the congealed fat. This can all be done two days before assembly.
Meanwhile, soak the dried beans in water that covers them by at least two inches for at least two hours. Add more water to maintain the water level: the beans will absorb moisture as they soak. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are tender, about 1 hour, adding salt to taste. Transfer the beans to a storage container and cool them completely by surrounding the container with and ice water bath. Refrigerate them until you are ready to finish the cassoulet.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Prick the sausage all over with a fork and roast them on a baking sheet with a lip for 25 minutes. Cool the sausages and cut them into 2-inch chunks. If you cook the sausages as you are assembling the cassoulet, set them aside. If you cook the sausages the night before, cover them and refrigerate.
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter and the olive oil in a sauté pan and sauté the mirepoix — onions, carrots and celery — over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
In a large roasting pan, casual, or other terracotta pan, combine the beef, beans and mirepoix, including the ancho chili bits. Add the diced tomatoes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add enough chicken stock to the cassoulet to make the mixture very wet. At this point the stock should very slightly cover the bean-meat mixture.
Melt the remaining 4 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan. Remove the pan from the heat; add the breadcrumbs and parsley and toss. Place the crumb mixture gently over the cassoulet.
Bake until the sides are bubbling, the crumbs are browned and the middle of the cassoulet is hot. Depending on the depth of your pan this could take 1 to 1-1/2 hours. Serve in the baking vessel.Whole Duck Cassoulet 1 duck 2 pounds andouille sausage 1-2 pounds pork belly 2 pounds Great Northern beans 2 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons olive oil 1/4 cup duck fat 2 yellow onions, peeled and diced 2 large carrots, peeled and diced 4 stalks celery, diced I 28-ounce can Italian tomatoes Chicken stock, up to 2 quarts 2-3 cups toasted breadcrumbs 1 cup chopped parsley Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Dry the duck and season with salt and pepper. Roast on a rack to drain the fat off until crispy and the juices run clear, between 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Set aside and when the duck is cooled to lukewarm, tear the flesh apart, as well as the crispy skin. You can leave the legs on the bone if you want to. Set all this meat and skin aside.
Soak the beans in warm water for at least 2 hours, bring to a boil, add the chunk of pork belly, then simmer until tender, 1-2 hours. Cool in an ice bath. Add the duck meat and skin to the beans. Refrigerate.
In the oven while the duck is roasting, roast the sausage. Prick the sausages with forks and roast for 20-25 minutes on a baking sheet with a lip. Cool and cut into 2 inch pieces. Refrigerate.
In a sauté pan, melt 2 tablespoons of butter and the olive oil. Sauté the mirepoix — onion, celery, carrot — until the onion is translucent, about 10 minutes. Refrigerate until you assemble the cassoulet.
When you are ready to assemble and bake the cassoulet, remove the pork belly from the beans and cut into 1-inch pieces. Heat a sauté pan and crisp the pork belly pieces for 2 to 4 minutes. Drain and mix back in the beans. You can also add a little of the rendered fat to the bean mix.
In a large cazuela or roasting pan, combine the bean, duck and pork belly mix, the sausage, the mirepoix, and the tomatoes. Crush the tomatoes with your hand into bite sized pieces. Add chicken stock until the mixture is very wet.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Put the breadcrumbs and the parsley in a food processor until they are finely crushed. Melt the duck fat and toss the parsley/bread mix with the fat. Place on top of the beans. Bake until the sides are bubbling, the crumbs are browned, and the middle is hot. This will take 1 to1-1/2 hours. Serve in the baking container.
Lou Jane Temple’s road to food has been a long and winding one. First as a rock n roll caterer back stage to the stars, then with her own Kansas City based catering company, Cafe Lulu, food writing, novelist, private chef. Lou Jane has written and had published nine culinary mysteries and one cookbook. She recently moved back to Kansas City and eagerly awaits the next chapter of her food career.