Have you faltered yet on your New years resolutions for a leaner healthier you? Or did you not bother? Either way, I’m sort of happy for you, as then you can try my lazy version of the classic duck cassoulet, as it’s certainly not one for the calorie-counters.
And it was National Cassoulet day in the US on 9th of January, with many restaurants serving the dish as a special throughout January. So if you needed an excuse to try it, there you have it.
I remember my first taste of cassoulet as if it was yesterday. In my early career I regularly traveled to Toulouse, usually those in-and-out in a day fly-by’s. But once I stayed an extra day to visit the beautiful medieval walled town of Carcassonne. Pretty much every restaurant menu I looked at had something called cassoulet on it, so I decided to try it, as it seemed a bit of a local speciality.
Now, I did not know this at the time, as I was clearly at the infancy of my culinary discovery, but the French towns of Carcassone, Toulouse and Castelnaudry all stake claim to this famous peasant dish of beans and preserved meats.
Their recipes are hotly debated, both locally and worldwide. What should go in it, how should it be cooked, how many times should the breadcrumb crust be stirred though during the baking phase. Should it even have breadcrumbs or should the crust come purely from the gelatinous stock baked so long and slow it forms a nearly blackened roof over the warming goodness underneath.
All I knew at the time was that I had died and gone to heaven. Deep earthy flavours of slow baked buttery beans, the saltiness of bacon and garlicky smoked pork sausage, the meaty shreds of rich duck confit. Who cared it was actually a hot summer’s day.
Admittedly this hearty dish is more suitable to a cold winter’s evening by a log fire. And it is labour intensive to say the least. Most recipes start along the lines of “several months before you intend to serve your dish, start preparing your duck confit”. Even the latter stages of meat and beans and assembly take at least a day, if not two in most recipes.
Now you may have noticed that I am very fond of cooking. But even for me that is a little too intense. So before you all start on me, I am fully aware that my recipe is not authentic by any means. It does however pay homage to everything that makes a cassoulet such a comforting delight.
This is a lazy version, because it uses a jar or a tin of beans instead of soaking and slow cooking the beans as you should for the full-on classic recipe. As the dried beans are usually cooked with certain aromatics, I add those to the tomato sauce instead.
I am also not bothering with long-winded preparations of pork shoulder, pork rind, bones, mutton or whatever else as suggested by Julia Childs, Auguste Escoffier and such likes. Mostly because I am not feeding a family of 8 and I have a life to get on with.
And I’m stirring the crumb topping through but once. Sue me.
Cassoulet is named after the “cassole” or “cassou”, the round terracotta vessel that it is traditionally cooked in. These dedicated casserole vessels were originally made in the village of Issel, near Castelnaudary. So not surprisingly Castelnaudry is the self-proclaimed “capital of the cassoulet”.
It used to be deglazed from the previous cassoulet to provide the base of the next one. Elizabeth David tells of legends whereby some cassoulets, like a good Mexican mole, soy sauce or sourdough starter, would keep going for years if not decades.
Nothing wrong with using a large wide oven dish or casserole that is washed after each use for today’s home cook though.
Cassoulet does not necessarily include duck. In fact, Escoffier indexes his cassoulet under the “mutton” recipes. But as my first memory of the dish included duck confit, that’s what I still favour.
You can buy good tinned duck leg confit online quite easily these days. And you’d be very welcome to use those in this recipe. But it’s not difficult to make your own. The classic method involves gently simmering the duck legs for hours and hours at a constant low temperature in a large quantity of duck fat, either in the oven or on the stove.
The sous-vide method is far less messy though. It makes it easier to control the low temperature for an extended time and only needs a few tablespoons of duck fat. Hurrah for those of us that still occasionally count the calories (or the pennies),
But of course you can be extra lazy and just buy a good confit. I won’t tell.
Sous-vide Duck Leg Confit (serves 2 GF LC DF RSF)
Most recipes only use salt and perhaps some thyme for the dry-brining, but I quite like this recipe from Sousvidetools which adds a few more lovely aromatics into the salt mix.
Once cooked, you can keep the confit duck legs in its vacuum bag in the fridge for a couple of weeks. In fact the longer you leave it before you use it, the deeper the flavour will be. You could also make a few batches and freeze for later.
2 duck legs
2-3 cloves of garlic
2 tbsp Maldon sea salt
1 wide strip of orange zest
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
½ tsp juniper berries
½ tsp black peppercorns
2-3 generous tbsp chilled duck fat or goose fat (from a jar is fine)
Step 1: dry-brining
Roughly grind all the aromatics except the duck fat in a pestle and mortar or mini food processor. Rub into the duck legs and place into a food grade plastic bag together with any remaining aromatics mix. Move the legs around in the bag to make sure they are well covered with the aromatics.
Refrigerate for up to 10 hours depending on how plump the duck legs are. For the size I used ((220 gr each), 6-7 hrs was enough, else they would have been too salty. Plumper legs can be refrigerated longer.
Step 2: Sous vide cooking
Heat the water bath to 75C.
Remove the dry-brined duck legs from the bag and rinse thoroughly. Pat dry. Place in another foodgrade plastic bag together with the duck fat. Massage the duck fat all around the duck legs. Vacuum seal.
Cook in the water bath for 12-15 hrs. I did 13 hrs for mine this time as they were not very big.
Flash-cool in iced water unless using straight away. Store in the fridge or freeze until using.
Lazy Duck Cassoulet (serves 3-4 DF RSF)
The dish can be prepared and assembled in advance to be baked on the day of serving. Or you can make the individual elements in advance, and assemble just before baking.
Either way, this tastes great on the day it is baked, but like most homely comfort dishes, it’s even better the next day.
Admittedly I left mine in the oven a little too long this time, as I was sidetracked on Skype and missed the 2nd timer going off… Thus not as moist as previous incarnations as you can see in the pictures… but still as delicious as ever regardless!
2 confit duck legs, home made or from a tin or jar
2 high-meat-content pork sausages, Toulouse sausages would be ideal
2 x 400 gr tins of medium white beans (preferably haricots or coco tarbais, but cannellini or Great Northern will do. I used a large jar of Mogettes de Vendée this time), drained, liquid reserved
1 tbsp duck fat (from the duck confit)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped or crushed
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 rib of celery, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
2-3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 sprig of fresh rosemary
A few sprigs of parsley including stalks, finely chopped
A pinch of piment d’espellette or a few dried chilli flakes (optional for background warmth, not heat)
S&P (go easy on the salt as you won’t need much due to the saltiness of the confit, bacon and sausages. My sausages were very salty so I did not use any additional salt at all throughout the rest of the dish)
Good reduced duck, beef or chicken stock, preferably home made, enough to help cover the beans and meat
150 ml white wine
150 gr thick cut smoked bacon lardons
400 gr tin plum tomatoes, crushed by hand to keep things rough, or a quality chopped tomato variety
3 fresh tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 pieces of orange zest
1 tbsp tomato puree
150-200 gr fresh breadcrumbs (I used wholemeal)
Meat and topping preparation
Remove all skin and fat from the confit duck legs, remove the meat from the bones in large chunks and shreds. Transfer the meat to a bowl. Set the bones and 1 tbsp of the fat aside.
To make (optional) duck skin crackling, cut the duck skin into lardons, and heat in a high-sided pan with a little of the remaining duck fat and a good splash of water on low heat. Let the fat render and the lardons turn golden in about 1 hr, adding a good splash of water whenever the pan runs dry. Drain, dry and cool on kitchen paper. This can be stored in an airtight container if not using straight away. It’s great sprinkled on salads such as my Duck salad too.
Heat ½ tbsp. duck fat in a non-stick sauté pan. Cut the sausages into large 3-4 cm pieces and fry in the duck fat over medium-high heat until golden. They don’t need to be cooked through at this stage.
If your sausages need boiling rather than frying, as mine did, cook according to packet instructions, but only about half the time as there is a 2nd cooking stage.
If you fried the sausages, put the sauté pan with any remaining fat back on a medium heat and add the bacon lardons. (If you boiled the sausages, dry-fry the bacon in a non-stick frying pan and proceed further as described). Fry until crisp and golden and remove from the pan to a bowl, leaving the fat in the pan.
Reheat the pan and add 2 crushed garlic cloves.. Add the breadcrumbs and season with pepper. Stir-fry until golden, then take off the heat. Add the chopped parsley, remove to a bowl and set aside.
Vegetable and tomato preparation
Wipe the sauté pan with a piece of kitchen paper, then set over medium heat. Melt ½ tbsp duck fat into it and add the onion, season, add the cloves and cook for 15 mins or so, stirring occasionally, until softened and slightly caramelized. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the bowl with the bacon, leaving any fat in the pan.
Reheat the sauté pan and add the carrots and celery. Season and cook for 5 mins or so on medium, stirring occasionally. Add the remaining garlic and cook for a further minute or two. Remove with a slotted spoon and add to the bacon and onions, leaving any fat in the pan.
Put the pan back on a medium-high heat and deglaze the pan with white wine. Stir up any crusty bits. Add the fresh and tinned tomato, duck bones, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves orange zest, piment d’espelette and half the bean liquid, if using. Season and turn the heat down to medium low. Simmer uncovered for 30-40 mins to reduce.
Discard the duck bones. You can sieve the lot or fish out the woody herbs too, but I like to leave everything else in for flavour, I don’t mind fishing any woody herbs out from my plate. But if you or your guests do, remove them now.
Stir the tomato sauce through the bacon and vegetable mix. Add the beans and set aside.
Final assembly and baking
Heat the oven to 175C.
Pour half of the tomato and bean mix into a large oven dish or casserole. Then add the duck and sausage pieces. Pour the remaining tomato and bean mix on top.
Add enough reduced stock to just about cover the cassoulet if needed. The liquid should barely cover, and preferably sit a little below, the beans, else the crust will get soggy.
Sprinkle over half of the crust mixture.
Bake for 45 minutes. Then partially stir the crust through the cassoulet . If the mixture appears too dry, stir through some more stock and/or bean liquid. Mix the duck skin crackling (if using) through the remaining crumb topping and scatter over the cassoulet. Bake for another 30-40 mins or so.
Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 10-20 mins before serving.
This needs nothing, but you could serve some bread or salad on the side if you feel you must.