One of the best memories Walt and I have of eating cassoulet takes us back to the town of Castelnaudary in southwestern France in 1989. We were doing a 10-day driving trip around that region and decided to stay the night in the main hotel in the center of the town. It had a nice restaurant and, Castelnaudary being the birthplace of cassoulet according to local tradition, that's what we ordered. (Pronounce those [kah-stehl-noh-dah-ree] and [kah-soo-lay]).
Our waiter recommended the cassoulet, accompanied by a salad and a nice bottle of the local Fitou red wine. He was very attentive, and I think he enjoyed talking to two young (imagine!) Americans who spoke French and enjoyed good French food and cooking. After the fine dinner, he offered us — on the house — a couple of glasses of Armagnac brandy (also a local product) as a digestif (that's a strong after-dinner drink that supposedly helps you digest the rich food you just ate). We were staying upstairs in the hotel, so we didn't have to drive anywhere until the next morning. The whole thing is a very vivid and positive memory of those long-ago days when we started exploring France together.
Today I want to post the last of the 2016 cassoulet photos. I cooked the beans (big white beans called haricots lingots in France, or cannellini in Italy and the U.S.) in the slow-cooker for nearly 8 hours. They were maybe a little overcooked, but then the cassoulet needed only a short time in the oven so it was good that the beans were already done. I put a layer of beans in a baking dish and laid two slow-cooked duck leg pieces on top, browning the duck in a skillet first.
Next, I covered the beans with breadcrumbs. My breadcrumbs were home-made from stale baguettes, and I sautéed them lightly in some duck fat before I spread them over the beans. There is a little bit of duck fat in the beans too — beans need some fat for richness, and duck fat is a delicious ingredient. There's also a little bit of cooking liquid in the dish with the beans, and you can add more as it cooks. If the beans go into the oven already heated through, all you have to do is brown the top of the cassoulet quickly. Liquid will bubble up to the top in places.