Oh cassoulet. Rich, comforting, complex cassoulet.
Eat cassoulet on cold winter days to warm your soul, or make it for a feast to share with friends. There are many variations, many interpretations. Whichever one you choose, know that you’re in it for the long haul, and dedicate two days to preparing and cooking.
Cassoulet, a hearty stew of pork, duck and beans, dates back to the 14th century in Languedoc, France, where townspeople gathered all the food in town and prepared a communal stew for soldiers who were on their way to war. Communal stew. I love that notion. A big pot of slow-cooked, everyday foods that create a bond between all who dip their spoons inside.
I had hours to devote to cassoulet, but I didn’t have days, and so I planned to omit the duck confit. Confit (con-fee) is a way to preserve meat by curing it in salt and poaching it in fat. You then seal it up covered in the same fat, and store it in the fridge for a few months. But just as I convinced myself that an all-pork version could still be called cassoulet, my butcher, Jesse from Star Meats, changed my mind. It didn’t take much. One look at his beautifully confited duck legs and before I knew it they perched beside my pork shoulder, ham hock and pancetta.
Yes, yes I know. All cassoulet must have sausage. Well not all, because mine doesn’t. I don’t claim this to be a completely authentic, traditional cassoulet from the foothills of France, so I intentionally left it out. Sausage has an extremely recognizable taste, and I didn’t want it to sway the balance of flavors already mingling in the cassoulet.
Wait, are there foothills in Languedoc?
All day cassoulet
4 ½ pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 4 large pieces
2 duck legs confit
1 ham hock
½ pound slab pancetta, cut into 1 inch cubes
4 carrots, roughly chopped
2 onions, roughly chopped
1 1/2 pounds dried cannellini beans
1 28oz can organic whole, peeled tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
1 head of garlic, cloves peeled, crushed and chopped
2 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 bunch fresh sage
Small handful fresh parsley
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons duck fat
The night before:
Soak the beans in water overnight. Water should come up 2 inches above the beans.
Season pork shoulder with salt and freshly ground black pepper and place in the fridge.
Prepare the beans:
Heat up a large pot and add 2 tablespoons duck fat. Add half of the chopped carrots, onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 10 minutes. Add beans, their water and ham hock and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a slow simmer and cook until beans are tender (but not mushy), about 1 hour. Remove ham hock and cut all meat off the bone. Throw away skin and grizzle, and stir the meat into pot of beans. Strain excess liquid out of beans.
Pat pork shoulder dry with a paper towel, add it to the hot Dutch oven and brown on all sides. You may need to do this in batches if your pot is not large enough.
Preheat oven to 250F.
Remove pork shoulder and add remaining carrots, onions and garlic to pot. Cook for 10 minutes or until soft. Put the pancetta and pork shoulder back into the pot and add white wine. Cook for 5 minutes and add tomatoes and their juices. Crush the tomatoes with your hands before throwing them in the pot.
Put together a bouquet garni by spreading out a piece of cheesecloth and filling it with sage, thyme, peppercorns and parsley. Tie the cheesecloth together with kitchen twine, creating a pouch. Add the bouquet garni to the pot. Cover and cook for 3 hours.
Meanwhile, heat up a cast iron skillet and add a swirl of olive oil. Add duck legs and brown on both sides (about 2 minutes per side). Shred meat off the bones and set aside.
When the pork shoulder is finished, it will be so tender that it easily falls apart. Remove from oven and skim off some of fat that floated to the top of the sauce. Remove bouquet garni. Shred pork shoulder, throwing away fat and skin, and put back into pot. Add shredded duck and stir to combine. Add a pinch of salt to taste (though it should taste slightly under-salted).
If you have one of those beautiful cassoulet dishes, great, but if not use your Dutch oven for the final step. Put a layer of the pork mixture on the bottom of the pot. Follow with a layer of the beans. Alternate layers until you use up all of the beans and pork. Top with breadcrumbs, and drizzle on 2 tablespoons of melted duck fat.
Cook uncovered at 300F for 3 hours. Every so often, poke a hole in the breadcrumbs with handle of a wooden spoon. Broil for 1 minute before serving to crisp the breadcrumbs. Drizzle on high-quality olive oil to finish.
Where I shopped:
Pork Shoulder, house-made duck confit, pancetta and ham hock: Star Meats, Berkeley
Carrots, Garlic, Onion: Berkeley Farmers’ Market
Dried Cannellini Beans: Monterey Market, Berkeley
Duck Fat: Ver Brugge, Oakland