Anatomy of a Dish: Cassoulet

Ever since I can remember, bean dishes have epitomized winter cooking in my heart. My mom used to make a simple dish of beans and knoepfles (an eggy doughy dumpling rooted in German farmhouse cooking) that we would eat mostly when it was cold outside and when money was tight. She used navy beans, which are a favored cooking bean in the South as well as in the cooking on my dad’s side of the family, representing generations of farmhouse cooking in the U.S. (five generations) and the southwestern mountains of Germany before that. Navy beans belong to the haricot family of beans that has been a workhorse of peasant cooking in both the US and Europe for centuries.

Since I left home and have been on my own, it’s often been a weekly ritual of mine to make some combination of pork, poultry, and sometimes game with beans in a hearty concoction to eat off of for a week or so. It’s always been my version of “fast food” in the winter months – quick and easy to reheat and eat either alone or with some fresh bread. Naturally then, I’ve always looked for a way to express this love of winter bean cookery in my restaurant kitchen. I do love red beans and rice but believe it or not, it’s often been a hard sell, even at Big Jones.

Cassoulet is the most romanticized version of winter bean cookery, and it was never that far of a stretch to make it my own and call it Southern – it is at its rootstock a humble kitchen sink dish of convenience, and in France, much of the canned cassoulet sold in grocery stores bears a striking resemblance to American pork and beans preparations, where you find a few bits of pork packed in a lot of beans whether the seasonings are all the same. More importantly, chefs in New Orleans particularly have long made their own versions of the dish, and navy (or often pinto) beans cooked with smoked pork or game have long been a staple of Appalachian cooking.

In the regional cooking of the south of France, you will always find meats, sausages, and white beans baked in a casserole, the regional distinctions being the meats that are chosen for the braise. The last several months as I was planning a southern cassoulet for the winter menu, I wrestled with the very question of which meats (and even beans, actually) I would use to keep it true to its ancient origins but also make it distinctively Southern.

Remembering how dad would often say that some problems are best left to solve themselves (the problem being how to know which ones will solve themselves) I decided to let my pantry tell me what should go in our cassoulet. My pantry wound up telling me that while those who order my head cheese really love it, most of my customers wind up ordering other charcuterie options and a different use for my hogs’ heads would not be a bad idea. The jowls could make the bacon for lardons, a quintessential cassoulet ingredient. My pantry told me the same about the pig trotters and the trotter torchons we would fashion of them. Ultimately this was a no-brainer. The head and trotters are the best sources of gelatin on a market hog, so using them to start the base would ensure a rich, thick, sticky base upon which to build the rest. Traditionalists say you should line the casserole with fatback. We have always had a surplus of skin since we started buying whole pigs, and fried pork rinds haven’t struck me as the best way to offer them for sale. Another no-brainer: the skins have a fair amount of gelatin as well, and great insulation properties. So, we would use the skin to line the casserole. It would add still more rich pork flavor and thicken the base even more with its gelatin contribution.

An enthusiastic sausage-making party surrounding a couple of venison legs in the fall left us a surplus of smoked venison sausage, and for a fresh sausage I thought chaurice would be the best choice since it is distinctively New Orleans and we have always had it around for the better part of two years. Lastly, rabbit confit and duck confit are things we often have around, or are at least well in the practice of preparing, so they seemed like the natural confitures to add to the mix. Venison, rabbit, duck, and pork – now that’s southern cooking!

The final touch was my decision to serve biscuits with the cassoulet. Not just any biscuits though – real, genuine freshly rendered white leaf lard biscuits. Freshly rendered lard (ours is made in-house from Gunthorp pigs) is not only very nutritious but yields a superior texture and unrivaled rich flavor. I dare you to try it. Prepare yourself though – you will have to face your realization that our modern industrial cooking is failing us because it fails to deliver the ultimate satisfaction that comes from such simple things as cooking whole, healthy animals with love and respect. By serving the biscuit made from the leaf fat and fatback, you can literally eat your share of one of these majestic creatures in a single meal. We’ve also been really excited to be able to procure certified organic kumquats through Goodness Greeness this year, and with our strong preference for organic certification when it’s not a local farm we can visit, this has opened the door to one of my favorite citrus fruits. Kumquats make great marmalade, and with their brilliant citrusy shine tempered by the bitter rind, kumquat marmalade makes a fantastic foil for the rich casserole and biscuits.

Made with proper technique, biscuits can puff up a little bit like puff pastry

So, without further delay, here are the recipes. Unfortunately, because the base is prepared from the whole head and trotters, I am listing the recipes as we prepare them, which may be too big of a project for your home kitchen. If you have or can borrow four 2-gallon casseroles or cocottes (we use cajun cast iron 8-quart ovens,) this is very doable. Otherwise, you could quarter the recipes. Either way, you now have a friendly neighborhood butcher shop in town where you can buy your needs for these recipes – The Butcher and Larder is now open in Noble Square! Rob can sell you heads, trotters, or parts thereof!

Cassoulet

For the stock:

  • Four fresh pig trotters
  • One fresh pig’s head, brain and jowls removed, jowls cured for bacon (recipe follows)
  • Three gallons cold water
  • 6 large Spanish onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 12 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 12 bay leaves
  • 10-12 thyme sprigs for the stock
  • 12 sage leaves
  • Leaves from one head celery (save stalks for the casserole)
  • 8 pounds smoked venison sausage (recipe follows)
  • 8 pounds chaurice (recipe follows)
  • 6 quarts dried navy beans, carefully washed and sorted, removing rocks and grit

Soak the head and trotters in cold water overnight. Drain and rinse well in cold running water, and place in a 5-gallon stock pot. Cover with 3 gallons cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, regularly skimming the foam and scum that rise. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and cook six hours, skimming all the while. Add onion, garlic, bay, thyme, sage, and celery leaves, and cook one hour more. Finally, making sure the heat is at a simmer, add first the venison sausage and poach gently until cooked through to 155 degrees, remove and cool at once. Repeat with the chaurice, gently poaching to cook through and cooling quickly. Refrigerate the sausages for later use. Place the washed and sorted navy beans in a heat-proof 5-gallon container. With the aid of an assistant and colander, carefully strain the hot stock onto the beans to facilitate a short soaking. You will NOT discard the soaking liquid. The long cooking will break down the gas-creating carbohydrates, and there is no need to wash away a portion of the beans’ flavor and vitamins. Set aside the head and trotters to cool while the beans soak. Once cool enough to handle, pull and chop all of the meat, fat, and collagen from the head and trotters, taking care to get the meat behind the ears, and also the tongue, which you should peel and slice. Soak the beans in the hot liquid (which will cool during soaking) for two hours, while you prepare your ingredients and tools for the braising.

For the braise:

  • A few ounces of freshly rendered lard (instructions follow)
  • Smoked Jowl bacon from one pig’s head (recipe follows)
  • 6 large Spanish onions, peeled and finely diced
  • 1 head celery minus leaves (see above,) finely diced
  • 6 red bell peppers, finely diced
  • 12 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1 bottle light, fruity white wine, such as colombelle or ugni blanc
  • 1 cup worcestershire sauce (recipe here)
  • The poached venison sausage
  • The poached chaurice
  • confit of four large rabbits (recipe follows)
  • All meat and trimming from head and trotters
  • 2 Tablespoons cracked black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Additional pork, chicken, duck, or rabbit stock, as necessary
  • Skin of one 200 pound hog
  • Salt to taste, about one cup if using kosher salt

In a large, broad, heavy-bottomed pan (we use a 5-gallon rondo, you can use the same, a cocotte, large saucepan, etc.) heat a thin layer of lard with the lardons cut from two smoked jowls. Render and brown the jowls well, then remove from the pan along with the rendered fat except for a thin layer to saute the onions in. Carefully heat the oil to smoking. Add the onions on first site of smoke, you don’t want to burn the fat! Add the diced onions and stir vigorously, being careful of splatter. Stirring constantly, lightly caramelize the onions to a light tan color, then add the rest of the vegetables and continue to saute to sweat and render the vegetables. Reduce carefully, stirring often and scraping the bottom of the pan until most of the water introduced by the vegetables has evaporated and the vegetables begin to caramelize. Deglaze with the wine and worcestershire and bring back to a simmer, scraping any bits off the bottom and sides of the pan into the liquid. Remove from heat and cool while browning the sausages.

In a large heavy-bottomed pan, brown the sausages in batches in a small amount of fat over fairly high (but not smoking) heat. Cool for a few minutes until you can handle them comfortably. Slice into coins 1/2″ thick or so, whatever thickness you like. Use a little of the white wine/worcestershire liquid from the vegetable pan to deglaze the sausage pan and return the liquid to the vegetables. Add the soaked white beans and their liquid to the vegetable pan, and stir well, heating gradually to a low simmer. Add the chopped head and trotter trimmings, sausages, lardons and their rendered fat, rabbit confit, and remaining seasonings. Return to a low simmer, about 145 degrees. Allow to cool slightly while you prepare the braising pans.

Cast iron or heavy ceramic with fitting lid(s) is all but required here. We use 2-gallon Cajun Cast Iron dutch ovens, which you can use, or any enamel or cast iron pots will work. It takes us four 2-gallon dutch ovens to complete this recipe, so plan on 8 gallons capacity total, or cut down the recipe. Line them carefully with the pigskin, leaving sufficient overlap at the top to wrap over the top of the casserole. Add maybe half the salt (you can add the rest and adjust salt after cooking) to the beans and mix well. Portion the beans between pans, being careful to also distribute sausages, confit, and lardons evenly. Add sufficient stock, if needed, to cover the beans and sausages with a thin layer to spare. Fold excess skin over top to close. Place lids on pans, and put into a pre-heated 275 degree oven. Braise for 6 hours. Remove, open the skin on top, stir well, and taste. Check beans for consistency and return to oven if you prefer. Add remaining salt and correct seasoning to your taste.  At this point, you can eat as is or refrigerate, pot, or can it for later use. We chill it in an ice bath and refrigerate for the final presentation.

Six gallons of sausage and beans before adding the confit and going to the pot
A 2-gallon Cajun Cast Iron dutch oven lined with pigskin
The beans, sausages, meats, and stock app wrapped up and ready for the oven

For presentation:

  • Individual serving casseroles (14-20 ounces are good depending on appetite, or you can use a larger pan to serve more people)
  • Buttered fresh bread crumbs (recipe follows)
  • Duck and/or hog fat for deep frying
  • Duck leg & thigh confit
  • Biscuits
  • Kumquat marmalade

Fill casserole to within 1″ of the top with cassoulet. The consistency should be very thick when cold due to gelatin and fat content, so it’s helpful to heat it to 165 degrees on the stovetop to check consistency before the oven. This can also shorten oven time. Once heated, it should have the consistency of a slightly thick bean soup, but not too much so. It will thicken further in the oven. Once you are happy with the consistency, pour into the casserole and cover with a thin but not stingy layer of well-buttered bread crumbs. Place in a 350 degree oven until bubbling and the bread crumbs are well toasted. Depending on the size and depth of your casserole and moisture content of your cassoulet, this can take 20-45 minutes. In the meantime you can prepare the duck leg confit.

In a large cast iron saucepan or dutch oven on the stove top, heat 3″ of fat to 350 degrees. Drop confit duck legs or thighs (one per person) into the hot fat and fry until the skin is crispy, about 6 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Serve on top of the cassoulet, and flank with hot biscuits and kumquat marmalade.

Fresh out of the oven, it looks like this

Pantry Recipes

Jowl Bacon

  • Two pig cheeks, skinned
  • 1/4 cup kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon curing salt
  • a few whole cloves
  • a few allspice berries
  • a few bay leaves

Mix the salts and sugar well. Rub the jowls well on all sides with salt mixture. Place on a rack over a pan to catch the drippings. Cover jowls with 1/2″ of cure and the spices, then cover with clean weights. Place in refrigerator to cure for five days. Wash off cure and pat dry. Return to refigerator, uncovered, for two more days. Smoke over pecan wood at 145 degrees for four hours. Pat dry, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate.

Worcestershire Sauce

In a large stockpot, saute:

  • ½ cup vegetable oil, heated to smoking
  • 1-1/2 pounds fresh horseradish, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 6 pounds onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 4 ounces garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

Saute to sweat thoroughly and brown slightly. Add:

  • 1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 Gallon cold water
  • 2 Gallons malt vinegar
  • 2 quarts sorghum molasses
  • 4 ounces anchovies in oil, minced
  • 2 tablespoons whole cloves
  • 5 tablespoons salt
  • 4 lemons, peeled and chopped
  • 14 ounces wet tamarind
  • 6 ounces dried porcini mushrooms

Mix thoroughly and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to a low boil and simmer for one hour, until mixture becomes thick enough to coat a spoon and highly aromatic.Strain through a fine sieve and return to a brazing pan. Over a low, gentle boil, reduce by half until the sauce is slightly syrupy. Strain again into a storage container. Cool and cover tightly. Will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.

Venison Sausage

  • One hind leg of venison, about 12-15 lbs
  • 3-5 lbs fatty pork trim, to make up 30% of finished weight
  • 1 large Spanish onion, peeled and chopped
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 6 bay leaves

Per 10 lbs of forcemeat:

  • 6 Tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons pink curing salt
  • 2 Tablespoons black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground allspice
  • 1 teaspoon ground Ceylon cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup juniper berries
  • 1/4 cup stone pine liqeuer
  • 1/4 cup calvados
  • 1 cup iced venison stock
  • lamb casings for stuffing

Debone the leg of venison, and cut the meat into strips to fit the sausage grinder. Mix with the pork trim and refrigerate. In the mean time, use a heavy cleaver or meat saw to cut the leg bone into 1″ segments. Soak in ice water for one hour or overnight. Drain and rinse well. Put in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Make a stock by standard instructions, including onion, thyme, and bay. Once complete, strain the stock and reduce to one cup. Chill thoroughly.

Make sure your meat, other ingredients, and grinding equipment are all thoroughly chilled. Grind the venison and pork through a 1/4″ plate. Mix with all seasonings except liquids and pass through the sausage grinder again. Combine the stone pine liqeuer, calvados, and stock and mix well into the forcemeat. Chill thoroughly until ready to stuff. Stuff into medium sheep casings, 22-24MM. Refrigerate uncovered overnight. The following day, smoke at 130 degrees for three hours, then increase temperature to 165 degrees and smoke until sausage registers 165 degrees internally. Cool and refrigerate until needed.

Stuffing venison sausage in sheep casings

Creole Chaurice

  • 10 lbs fatty pork and trim
  • 6 Tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons pink curing salt
  • 1/4 cup granulated onion
  • 1/4 cup fresh garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1/4 cup cumin powder
  • 3 Tablespoons freshly ground tellicherry peppercorns
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 cup high-ASTA Spanish paprika
  • 1 Tablespoon ground allspice
  • 2 Tablespoons dried thyme leaves
  • 1 Tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1-1/2 cups iced water

Make sure your meat, other seasonings, and grinding equipment are all thoroughly chilled. Grind the pork through a 1/4″ plate. Combine with all seasonings and mix well. Pass through the 1/4″ grinding plate once more. Mix iced water into forcemeat, combining thoroughly. Stuff into hog casings and tie into links of your desired size, 6-8″ recommended. Refrigerate overnight before using.

Rabbit Confit

  • 4 large roasting rabbits, 3 – 3-1/2# each
  • 3 Tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1 Tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme
  • a few bay leaves
  • rabbit, duck, chicken, or pork fat, or a combination, rendered and melted but not hot

Clean your rabbits under cold running water. Remove loins or entire saddle for other purposes and set aside. Place hind and fore legs, organs, trim, cavity fat, and belly meat in a mixing bowl and toss with the seasonings. Place in a single layer on a well drained rack and refrigerate overnight to cure. The following day, use a heavy casserole large enough to contain all the rabbit with room to spare. Gently melt your confit fats without getting it too hot. Lay out cured rabbit in the casserole and cover with the melted fat by a half inch or so, making sure the fat fills out the bottom of the pan and in between pieces of rabbit as well. Cover tightly and cook in a 275 degree oven for eight hours, overnight works well. Remove from oven and check consistency of rabbit. It should easily fall off the bone. Allow to cool enough to handle, then carefully pull rabbit from the bones, being cautious as rabbit has lots of pin bones. Check and correct seasoning as you go. Reserve confit meat under a layer of leftover fat in the refrigerator, discard the bones, and strain and save the fat in the refrigerator for your next use.

Duck Confit

  • 6 large ducklings, 4 – 5 lbs
  • 1/4 cup  kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cracked black pepper
  • a few sprigs fresh thyme
  • a few bay leaves
  • rabbit, duck, chicken, or pork fat, or a combination, rendered and melted but not hot

Clean your ducks under cold running water. Remove the legs, thighs, wings, neck fat, and cavity fat, reserving the rest for other purposes. Separate the legs from the thighs at the joint. Place legs, thighs, and wings in a mixing bowl and toss with the seasonings. Place in a single layer on a well drained rack and refrigerate overnight to cure. The following day, use a heavy casserole large enough to contain all the duck with room to spare. Gently melt your confit fats without getting it too hot. Lay out the duck’s neck and cavity fat on the bottom of the casserole and lay out the bony parts on top.  Cover with the melted fat by a half inch or so, making sure the fat fills out the bottom of the pan and in between pieces of duck as well. Cover tightly and cook in a 275 degree oven for eight hours, overnight works well. Remove from oven and check consistency of the thigh meat. It should easily fall off the bone. Allow to cool enough to handle, then carefully remove the duck parts, being careful to keep them whole as you will want to fry them whole for presentation. Refrigerate in a single layer until needed. Strain and reserve leftove fat in the refrigerator for your next use.

Buttered Bread Crumbs

  • 2 pounds rich feathery bread, such as brioche, challah, or Sally Lunn
  • 1/2 pound unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Using your hands, gently pull apart and crumble bread into large feathery crumbs. In the mean time, melt butter over low heat, stirring often to prevent browning and maintain creaminess. Once melted, toss with the bread crumbs, combining well. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until needed.

Biscuits

  • 5 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup freshly rendered pork fat, well chilled, cut into small bits
  • 2 cups, approximately, buttermilk or sweet milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees and prepare two 18″ x 12″ cookie sheets with a thin rubbing of fat. Sift the flour, soda, tartar, and salt together. Work in the pork fat, mashing the bits of fat between your fingers until well incorporated and the mixture resembles a coarse meal. Working quickly, add the milk a bit at a time, working with your hands until just enough has been added for the dough to come together. Turn out onto a well floured board. Turn the dough over on itself a few times, roll out to 3/4″ thickness and cut with a biscuit cutter. Place biscuits on cookie sheet and go straight to the oven. Bake at 425 until puffed and fairly well browned, about twenty minutes. Serve without delay.

Kumquat Marmalade

  • 5 Lbs fresh kumquats, washed and sliced thinly
  • 2 cups water
  • 5 cups sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Place the kumquats and water in a heavy-bottomed stainless steel or enameled cast iron saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then reduce heat and maintain a low boil, stirring often, until fruit is tender, about 30-45 minutes. Add the sugar and increase heat slightly. Reduce liquid while checking the temperature frequently. When mixture registers 224 degrees on a candy thermometer, remove from heat at once. Can according to regular instructions or simply refrigerate in an airtight container, where it will keep for months.