For a long time, Becke’s had a favorite wintertime meal from North Market Poultry and Game. That meal was, and is, their cassoulet.
Cassoulet is French comfort food — a hearty, meat-heavy bean stew cooked for hours in a cast-iron pot either in an oven or on a stovetop until the beans are very soft and the meats are fall-apart tender. The initial clear appearance of the broth, by the time the cassoulet is done, has become a murky, thick, starchy gravy redolent of the flavors of all the meats as well as the added vegetables and aromatics (you’ll find a bouquet garni used to season any good cassoulet — this one included).
The problem I’ve always had with cassoulet is that it’s such a chore to make, and usually pretty expensive. Ours was no exception. I started with a half-kilo of flageolet beans (available for $3.49 a pound at the North Market’s Greener Grocer), a bit over a pound of bone-in lamb shoulder chops ($5.49 a pound at Blues Creek Meats) from which I removed the bones with a fillet knife, four (six would work just as well) Long Island duck legs ($5.99 a pound at North Market Poultry & Game), two quarts of NMPG’s fantastically flavorful duck stock (again from NMPG @ $5 per quart), about 3/4 pound of a really really flavorful white-rinded French-style pork salami sausage from Curds & Whey ($24 a pound; ask Mike what he suggested I use in my cassoulet and he’ll sell you the right one), and finally, about 2/3 pound of Thurn’s double-smoked slab bacon ($5 a pound at Thurn’s Meats on Greenlawn Avenue; open 8am-6pm Thu-Fri and 7am-1pm Sat, closed Sun-Wed).
To finish the recipe, we bought one batard (a crusty, large French loaf with a dense crumb) from Eleni Christina Bakery on Russell Avenue in the Short North. I suggest you call ahead, so they’ll hold aside one or two batards for you at $3 per loaf.
If you think this dish is a bit pricey to prepare, understand that the one local vendor from whom we buy prepared cassoulet, North Market Poultry & Game, charges $8 per pint for it, and it’s worth every penny. It truly is a time-consuming pain in the butt to make, but is worth the effort.
The finished cassoulet was quite pretty. Here it is, in all its aromatic and meaty glory:
The recipe I borrowed and adapted was the Duck Cassoulet Recipe by Only Slightly Pretentious Food:
500g lingot beans (I used flageolet beans)
300g lamb shoulder or boneless lamb, cut into 4cm cubes (I used lamb shoulder chops, trimmed of bone and cut into approximately 2.5cm cubes)
200g smoked bacon slab (I used 300g of double-smoked bacon slab)
6 pcs raw duck legs (no need to chop in half if using local ducks, which are smaller) (I used four larger legs)
3 pcs sausages (I used a single 340g piece of French-style pork salami with a white washed rind)
100g duck fat
200g roughly chopped white onions
50g chopped garlic
100g or 4 peeled and chopped tomatoes (I used peeled canned San Marzano tomatoes)
4 Tbsp tomato paste (I used 2 Tbsp Amore double-concentrated tomato paste)
1 bouquet garni (i.e. a handful of herbs like thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, parsley stalks, celery leaves, tied together with twine)
1 whole onion
2 cloves (stick the cloves into the peeled onion)
4 whole cloves garlic
Salt to taste
1.5 litres water (I used 1.5 liters of NMPG’s fantastic duck stock in place of the water)
1 sheet of greaseproof parchment paper
(Optional) 1 cup breadcrumbs (I omitted this)
One French batard loaf, cut into 3/4″ to 1″ thick slices
* Lingot Beans are dry white beans, a little like kidney beans. They are available in Singapore from Culina. Only butchers like Hubers/Meat the Butcher/Swiss Butchery will sell smoked bacon in a slab and not pre-sliced. Feel free to use substitutes.
(1) The trick is that because the stew cooks itself, it’s important to use the best and freshest ingredients you can get, as all the flavours get leached out and into your stew. It’s really what sets apart a quality and home-made dish from a commercial one.
(2) In a sturdy pot (prefably a cast iron pot) large enough to hold all the ingredients, place the beans and bacon slab and fill with enough water to cover the beans. Bring to a boil for 15 minutes. Remove the bacon and strain the beans under running water to wash away the starch. Set both aside. ***I skipped this step, choosing instead to soak the flageolet beans overnight in clear cold water, then draining and rinsing them***
(3) Dry the pot and use it to sear the duck legs with a bit of the duck fat. Sear the lamb pieces and set all the meat aside. When you sear, you are aiming only to brown the meat surface, not to cook the meat through and through. If you cooked it through, there’s no point in stewing, is there!
(4) Using the remaining fat, cook the chopped onions and garlic till they soften. Add the tomato paste and continue to fry for 2 minutes. In all this searing and frying, remember that you are not to burn anything, only to lightly brown them – heat control is important.
(5) Add in the fresh tomatoes, salt, remaining duck fat, the beans, duck legs, bacon and lamb Add in 1.5 litres of water and turn the flame down to a simmer. ***I cut the pork salami into fifths and added it at this step. Also, substitute the duck stock for water here.***
(6) Add the peeled onion studded with the cloves, the 2 carrots, 4 cloves of peeled garlic and the bouquet garni.
(7) Cut the parchment paper into a circle to fit the circumference of the pot, cut a hole out of the center of your circular baking paper, then float the baking paper circle on the top of your stew. The idea here is you don’t want to cover the pot, because that doesn’t allow for evaporation. You don’t want to leave it open either, because then too much evaporation will occur. So you create a chimney, from the baking paper and lay it over the surface of the stew, to allow for moderate evaporation and to soak up some of the oil. ***The hole I cut in the center of the parchment paper was approximately 3 inches in diameter.***
(8) Place the entire pot in a pre-heated over at 170C for 1 hour 55 min. Make sure your pot has no plastic handles to it!
(9) After 1 hour, poke holes in your sausages (to break the sausage skin), place them into the pot and keep cooking the stew for another 40 minutes. ***IGNORE THIS STEP, AS YOUR SALAMI WILL ALREADY BE IN THE CASSOULET AND THERE WILL BE NO NEED TO ADD ANYTHING ELSE TO THE CASSOULET UNTIL THE VERY END.***
(10) At the end, test that your beans have softened to the consistency of baked beans. You should have a stew with the meat blending well into the gravy, not a clear soup, which you started off with.
(11) Remove the chimney and the bouquet garni (you can leave the herbs in if you choose but I would remove the twine). An additional, optional step is to add 1 cup of breadcrumbs into the mixture and cook it in the oven for another 10 minutes. ***DO NOT USE BREADCRUMBS. INSTEAD, FOLLOW STEP 11A, BELOW.***
(11A) Take the slices of the batard, and butter only one side of each slice. Press the unbuttered side of each slice into the top of the cassoulet, leaving the buttered side facing upward. Cover as much of the surface of the cassoulet with the slices, leaving the absolute minimum of exposed beans/meat/liquid. Return the pot to the oven for another 15-20 minutes or until the buttered side of the batard slices are crispy and browned to your liking.
(12) If you are making this dish early (good for you), let it cool to room temperature, then refrigerate until ready to re-heat and eat. One benefit of refrigeration is that the fat will congeal on the top of the stew and you can cut all of it away before serving.