‘An ode to fat’

Diving belly first into the flavorful world of cassoulet

There is no better activity on a frigid December evening than gathering around a table with friends and family to celebrate the season with wine and a hot, hearty meal. To kick off the entertaining season, the wife and I recently attempted to make, for the first time, one of the heartiest of meals for a small group of our long-time friends—the classic, French, baked bean and meat dish, the cassoulet.

When I first decided that I wanted to make a cassoulet, I knew two things:

One: I saw Anthony Bourdain make one during the “Cleveland” episode of his show No Reservations on the Travel Channel. As he pulled what he called “an ode to fat” out of the oven, the beans on top were crackling in a pool of hot, melted pig and duck parts, and I had to restrain myself from licking the television screen.

Two: This past summer, we visited Paris and tasted firsthand how fat-rich, creamy and comforting cassoulet really was.

My investigation began in the pages of the French food bible, the encyclopedic cookbook Larousse Gastronomique: “it is customary … to complete the cooking of the cassoulet in a large earthenware terrine made of Issel clay in the baker’s oven, heated with brushwood of mountain furze.”

OK. Since I didn’t even have a proper cassole baking dish (either made of earthenware or other customary materials like enameled cast iron), let alone a baker’s oven, I knew I was going to have a hard time staying authentic. However, despite the stress-inducing arguments around the Internet about proper baking vessels and ingredients (only the mighty Tarbais beans will do!), I did take solace in the words of Julia Childs in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Instead of being some kind of “rare ambrosia,” cassoulet began as nothing more than “nourishing country fare,” she writes, adding, “an extremely good cassoulet can be made anywhere out of beans and whatever traditional meats are available.”

I settled on Bourdain’s authentic-looking yet straightforward recipe (available on the Travel Channel site) featuring beans, pork belly (the bacon zone), pork rind (the skin), sausages, duck confit, onions, garlic, herbs (thyme, parsley, bay leaf), salt and pepper.

I didn’t have time to make my own confit, so I visited The Galley (551 Country Drive), where they carry very tasty pre-made duck leg confit from Grimaud Farms ($14-$15 per two legs, depending on weight) and picked up two packages while purchasing cheese for appetizers.

Since I was cooking the very next day and wasn’t able to order ahead from any Chico butchers, I drove to El Toro Loco butcher/market in Hamilton City (570 Main St., just off Highway 32), where I was able to pick up five pounds of fresh belly with rind for only $15.

Bourdain’s recipe, like many recipes, calls for the imported Tarbais beans (around $15/pound!), but I went with Childs’ recommendation and picked up Great Northern beans on sale in bulk at S&S Produce for $1.99/lb.

Much is made about the multi-day preparation required for a cassoulet, but unless you’re making your own duck confit (cooking duck in its own fat and preserving it in the same fat), then one committed, organized day is plenty.

I soaked the beans overnight, then, starting at about 9 a.m., I cooked them in a big pot with the herbs, onion and pork before transferring it all to a big baking dish (I put my thick, 7.5-quart anodized aluminum stockpot into service as a baking vessel) with my various meats. By 3 p.m., I had it in the fridge, and at 7 p.m. I put it back in the oven and served it with a small green salad just as we finished our appetizers.

How did it turn out? Really, really good. (All bowls came back to the kitchen clean!) The beans were perfect, creamy and infused with fat, and the texture of the duck was rich and almost crispy on the ends. Next time, I’ll follow the recipe and not use so much pork (I had extra, so I used half-again as much as was called for). The extra meat not only got in the way of the beans—which are the star of the dish—but also caused too much of the fatty cut’s natural unctuous flavor/texture to come the fore.

I should point out that I am neither a gourmet nor a foodie. I like tasting new things, I own a bunch of fun cookbooks and I do love watching most of the cooking shows on television, but nearly all the food I eat each week is simple and quick and designed not to get in the way of the rest of my schedule.

But, as Childs points out, the cassoulet began as peasant food, and continues to be a great way to put any leftover meats to delicious use. Other than requiring more time than one may be accustomed to, making a cassoulet is pretty straightforward. And it makes for tons of great leftovers.

Jason Cassidy/Anthony Bourdain cassoulet recipe

Below is my tweaked version of Anthony Bourdain’s cassoulet recipe from the Travel Channel site. I’ve made a couple of cost-saving substitutions and abbreviated the process so that, as long as you soak your beans beforehand (overnight), this will be a one-day cassoulet. For the full recipe, including instructions for making your own confit, pick up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook or go to www.travelchannel.com/TV_Shows/Anthony_Bourdain and click on the “recipes” link on the left.

5 cups Great Northern beans
2 pounds fresh pork belly
4 onions (one quartered; three thinly sliced)
1 pound fresh pork rind (long thin sheets)
1 bouquet garni (4 bushy sprigs of thyme, 4 bushy sprigs of Italian parsley, 2 bay leaves, 1 large carrot, all tied together in cheesecloth or with cotton twine)
salt and pepper
1/4 cup oil (olive, or canola, or safflower)
6 pork sausages
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
4 legs confit de canard (duck confit)

Start early in the morning—no later than 7 a.m. if you want to be finished with all your cooking before noon. Drain and rinse beans that have been soaking overnight and place in large (at least 8-quart) stock pot. Add the pork belly, the quartered onion, bouquet garni and 1/4-pound of pork rind (set remaining 3/4-pound of rind aside). Cover with water, salt and pepper to taste (not too much pepper) and bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook till beans are tender, about one hour.

Remove bean pot from heat and let cool about 20 minutes. While that cools, in large sauté pan, brown sausages in cooking oil (or in duck fat, if you got it!). While sausages cook, thinly slice remaining three onions and garlic clove. Remove sausages and put onions in the still-hot pan. As onions cook, preheat oven to 350, then strain the bean mixture (preserving cooking liquid) and discard bouquet garni and the quartered onion. Retrieve cooked pork rind from bean mixture and add to the sautéing onions along with the garlic. Once onions start browning, remove from heat and pour pan’s contents into blender or food processor and puree till smooth.

Remove pork belly from beans and chop into large chunks. Remove duck confit from bones.

Assemble cassoulet: Line bottom of 8-quart fireproof casserole dish with sliced pork rind (like you’re making a pie crust), then add ingredients in alternating layers: A layer of beans, the sausages, 1/3 onion puree. Then more beans, the cooked pork belly, 1/3 puree. Still more beans, duck confit, rest of puree. Top with rest of beans and pour in enough of bean cooking liquid to just cover beans (reserve rest of liquid in fridge for later). Place cassoulet, uncovered, on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper in oven and bake for one hour. Break crust on top of cassoulet and incorporate with top layer of beans, replenish bean liquid if needed, reduce heat to 250 and bake for additional hour.

Remove and let cool for one hour, then refrigerate until ready to bake for serving. Before serving, preheat oven to 350 and bake, uncovered, for one hour. Heat up one cup of bean liquid in microwave, break cassoulet crust, pour in bean liquid and stir up cassoulet, then return to oven and bake till golden crust reforms (20-30 minutes).

Serve scorching hot.