04 January 2010

It's not easy...

... to take an attractive and appetizing picture of a dish like Southwestern France's cassoulet. Maybe you've never tried — okay, I'd feel pretty safe betting that you haven't. LOL as we say. I've tried and this is the best I've been able to come up with. That was an unfortunate choice of words, probably.

Cassoulet is the meal we have been eating on New Year's Day for the past few years. It all started, I think, because of the Southern U.S. tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good luck on the first day of the new year. I decided the best way to cook the black-eyed peas was in a cassoulet. And that's what I started doing. Here's a link to my blog post about it.

Cassoulet with lima beans, duck, sausages, and breadcrumbs

This morning the temperature is -6.4ºC — +20.5ºF. Yesterday it got colder and colder all through the day, dropping from just below freezing when I went out with the dog in the morning all the way down to -4.5ºC by bedtime. Snow is supposedly moving in from Brittany and Normandy.

It will be a good day for a hot lunch of leftover cassoulet. And that's what we are going to have. To go with it, I'm thawing some collard greens that I cooked with duck fat a few weeks ago. By the way, I wonder if my collard greens and Swiss chard plants are going to survive this hard freeze... My fingers are so cold this morning that I'm having trouble typing.

Anyway, how do you make cassoulet? It's easy, but there can be a lot of ingredients and some long waiting times. The indispensable ingredients are beans and the slow-cooked duck called confit de canard (or goose — confit d'oie). As for the beans, the classic cassoulet is made with large white beans called lingots or tarbais beans. Cannellini beans are similar, or you can use great northern or navy beans. Or, as I said, black-eyed peas.

Big lima beans after cooking, with a teaspoon for scale

This time I used the giant lima beans that I think might be called Fordhook limas in parts of the U.S. I'm not talking about green "baby limas" but white, very large dried beans. When Jean and Nick were over for a cassoulet lunch on New Year's Day, Jean reminded me that these beans are called "butter beans" in England.

If you use dried beans, you just need to cook them in water with aromatics like bay leaves, pepper, herbs, onion, garlic, and carrot — but no salt. To keep them tender, salt them only after they have cooked. You can also use beans out of a can/tin to make a cassoulet.

As for duck confit, if you can buy duck leg sections and wings, it's easy. The leg sections sell for about six euros a kilo here in Saint-Aignan, at the supermarket — that's about US$4.00/lb. Expect to pay more in America, I think. Oh, you also need a lot of duck fat. Or lard. I think you could even use vegetable oil — even olive oil — to make the confit.

Confit de canard slow-cooked in the oven in ample duck fat

Confit de canard is duck pieces cooked slowly, at low temperature, in fat. In Southwestern France, where the diet is based on duck and goose, the fat used is always either duck or goose fat. What you do is put the duck or goose pieces in a pot or deep dish, pour on enough fat to cover them, and cook them slowly either on top of the stove or in the oven for about two hours.

The fat on a duck or goose, as on a chicken or turkey, is located under the skin, not mixed in with the lean meat. When you slow-cook the duck in fat or oil, the fat under the duck skin melts and blends with the cooking fat. By the way, you can make confit de dinde — slow-cooked turkey — the same way. I've done it and it was very good.

I'm not saying you can make confit with vegetable oil that will be as tasty as confit made with duck fat, but I'm sure you can make it that way. And the by-product will be a good quantity of duck-flavored oil that you can use for sauteeing potatoes or seasoning vegetables. I would try the vegetable-oil confit myself except for the fact that I have several quarts of duck fat in the refrigerator (just for cooking emergencies, LOL). It keeps indefinitely in sealed jars.

Duck pieces in their dry marinade, before rinsing

The first step in making confit is to marinate the duck or other poultry pieces in coarse salt (gros sel) and aromatics. No liquid is required. Put four duck leg/thigh sections in a plastic bag, pour in a quarter-cup of salt, add a chopped onion or two, a dozen black pepper corns, six allspice berries, and three or four bay leaves. Some dried thyme is a good idea too. Close the bag so that all the air is pushed or sucked out of it, put it in a bowl, and let it sit in a cold place for 12 hours or longer. I've marinated it for as long as 48 hours.

The duck pieces rinsed, dried, and packed in a dish
for cooking in fat to make confit

When you open the bag, rinse off the duck legs under cold running water and then dry them off. Now you are ready to put them in a pan or dish, pour the fat or oil over them, and cook them slowly for two hours. When they are done and close to falling apart, take them out of the fat with tongs and put them on a rack over a pan so that the cooking fat drips off. At this point you can brown them in the oven or a skillet if you want, or you can use them just as they are.

Slow-cooked duck — confit de canard

This way of cooking duck gives the meat a flavor and moist texture you won't believe. There's nothing like it. I've written about making confit de canard before, here, here, and here. And I've written about giant lima beans — in French, pois du Cap = Capetown peas — here. Last week when I was making confit and cassoulet again, I took the pictures in today's post.

To put together the cassoulet, cook about 2 pounds of dried beans or use two large cans/tins of white beans. Put a layer of beans in the bottom of a deep baking dish and lay the pieces of slow-cooked duck on top of them. Put the rest of the beans over those to make the top layer.

Plain Toulouse pork sausages plus
one smoked Montbéliard
pork sausage,
after poaching in water for 20 minutes

Other good meats to put in a cassoulet are sauteed lamb or pork and sausages. The plain pork sausages called saucisses de Toulouse are classic. Chicken or duck sausages would be good too. Cook them first, if they are sold uncooked, by poaching them in water. Cut the cooked sausages and meats into chunks and put them over the first layer of beans with the duck pieces. Put more beans over all, as I said.

Pour just enough broth over the beans and meats to come almost up to the top. You don't want the beans covered, just kept moisten during the cooking. Chicken or duck broth is good to use, or vegetable broth. Some people put a little tomato or tomato paste in the broth, but I don't. I do like to mix some cooked carrots in with the beans though.

The cassoulet ready for the oven

Then take a cup or even two of bread crumbs and spread them over the top. Dribble some duck fat or some of the oil you cooked the duck in over the top and put the cassoulet in a slow oven (250º to 300ºF) for two to four hours. Keep an eye on it so the top doesn't scorch, and make sure it doesn't dry out completely. Add more broth as needed, in small quantities.

One more attempt at an appetizing photo of cassoulet on the plate

You see, cassoulet is not a recipe, really, but a cooking method. It will be as good as the ingredients you use to make it, if you plan ahead and cook it carefully.


  1. Hey, when I saw those beans, I said to myself, "Hmm... those look just like the Butter Beans that I had at a restaurant this weekend." And, then, you mentioned that they're also known by that name... so, there you go!

    My French au pair family took me with them over their Christmas holidays back in '81, and one of the places we went was to Toulouse for New Years Eve. We had a delicious Cassoulet for the meal on Jan. 1 (I remember that there was discussion among the other adults attending about whether or not I should be included at the table with them... because, the host family had a cook, and she ate in the kitchen... so the Belgian woman and the Toulouse woman suggested that maybe it would be more appropriate for me to eat there with her. "My" family balked at the suggestion, and I was, in the end, allowed to spend some time at the main table *MDR*). It seemed a little more like a thick soup, or stew, than what yours looks like, but similar ingredients.

    haaa haaa... my verification word is colde!

  2. If you decide to come out of retirement, Ken, I think you've found your next profession -- chef de restaurant. I am awestruck with the level of detail you provide with your culinary masterpieces.

    And it all looks so delicious.

  3. Hi Ken, Until a few years ago I used to make my own confit, just like you've described it. And then I bought some tinned 'cuisses de canard confites' at the little wine tasting shop located in the rock beneath the castle of Amboise: Domaine la Bastide!. They are so good that I haven't prepared any myself lately. But reading about it in today's post has inspired me. I might just it a try again ... Soon, when we've eaten he last tin we bought last year :). Martine

  4. My word verification is "torders". (Je me tords de rire). French citizenship should be awarded to you on the spot. Who cooks like this now days? Not too many french people I would think.
    My celery remoulade was delicious My son and I really enjoyed it, though without the lox. I still have some leftovers. I woke up early this morning and remembered that it was a "jardiniere de legumes with mayonnaise" that was stuffed in a tomato, not the remoulade.

  5. I have been reading Julia Child's book "My Life in France" and she talks quite abit about Cassoulet. She made many different recipes when she was researching her book "Mastering the Art of French Cooking". I have never eaten duck but it sounds delicious.

  6. The cassoulet was magnifique !! No doubt there are foods that might look prettier in a photo but it was gorgeous to eat.

  7. bmagre, Have you read Julia Child's full biography, Appetite for Life? It's even better than My Life In France.

    Ken, you and Walt should open a "Les Deux Gourmands" (ahem... Julia's group was "Les Trois Gourmandes") cooking class for tourists. They could camp out on your lovely lawn, and then learn to cook French classic recipes (or stay at the hotel in town, or at your friend's gîte in town!).


  8. Hey Ken, that sounds delicious. I love duck confit and have wanted to taste cassoulet.
    Your great instructions are inspiring. What terrific cold weather, rib sticking food. Might have to wait until the temp drops a bit here though. Up to 38 later this week.
    We can buy tins of duck confit here, but extremely expensive. Then again, duck is fairly dear, as is duck fat. Will have to wait until later this year and have it in France I think.

  9. Judy, that's an interesting sort of upstairs-downstairs story, isn't it? As for the soupy cassoulet, that's one style. I like it a little drier at the beginning. Then I make soup with the leftovers.

    Bob F., my obsession, as it was called by a fellow blogger, is showing through! (But it's not one, really... I insist.) Anyway, glad to see you and if I haven't alread let me wish you and Norma and family a prosperous, healthy, and happy 2010. When's the next trip to France?

    Martine, making confit does take a lot of time, when you consider all the steps involved in making it from scratch. It's a good retirement activity.

    Nadège, I wondered about the céleri rémoulade stuff into tomatoes. I'm sure it would be good but I've never seen it. Yes, tomatoes stuffed with salade de macédoine de légumes is a standard summertime dish.

    bmagre, I'll have to look at My Life in France again to refresh my memory. I hope I haven't given the book away to a friend.

    And Judy, thanks for the recommendation of An Appetite for Life. I haven't read that one. I'm getting ready to order Julia Child's The Way to Cook DVDs, just to have them. I have the book.

    Sue, it sounds like you could roast a duck on the hood (bonnet) of your car!


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