BEYOND KITCHEN SINK CUISINE: THE MIGHTY CASSOULET FOR NEW YEAR’S DAY
The cassoulet is the original pot luck casserole. The story goes that a tiny besieged village came together post onslaught and gathered all of the ingredients they had available and cooked them all together in a cauldron over open hearth fire. Mutton, goose, duck, and pork often found their way into the big pot alongside beans and whatever vegetables and aromatics they could rustle up.
A far cry from the hot tuna and potato chip mess that will somehow find its way onto a church table spread, the cassoulet is the Cadillac of casseroles. It has a few essential components but can be modified based on taste and availability. It starts with white beans soaked overnight and then stewed in a pot with either salt pork or smoky ham hocks or even bacon.
Once the beans are tender, the pork is removed and pulled to bite size pieces, alongside slow cooked poultry, such as braised chicken legs or confit goose or duck. Everything is layered together with a few garlicky sausage links on top and baked slow and low for several hours until there is a nice and crusty “skin” on top. The result is a rich and unctuous dish that would pair well with a crusty sourdough and some wilted greens.
This recipe will accommodate several for dinner, and it’s perfect for that lazy New Year’s Day get together. Gather your friends and family and enjoy the warmth and comfort of the classic cassoulet.
2 C dry white beans, navy or Cannellini, soaked overnight
1 large ham hock, or substitute a square of salt pork, or 1/2 pound of bacon
2 Qt homemade stock*
1 T lard
1 medium onion
4-5 garlic cloves
2 fresh bay leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
4-5 garlicky sausages, such as Toulouse, Bratwurst or Knackwurst
4 chicken drumsticks, or 4 legs of duck or goose confit
First things first, soak the beans overnight in salted water. They need at least 12 hours to soak before cooking.
Prepare a large, 5 qt heavy bottomed pot to cook on medium low heat. Add the tablespoon of lard and then brown the sausages in the lard. Once the sausage links are browned evenly, remove from the pot and set aside. Season the chicken drumsticks with salt and pepper and brown on all sides. (If using confit you can add it later, after the beans have cooked and just before baking.) Once the chicken legs are evenly browned, remove from the pan and set aside.
Peel and quarter the onion and carrot and add them to the pot. Cook, turning frequently until evenly browned. Add the garlic and cook for a couple of minutes more. Remove all of the vegetables from the pot and drain the fat into a bowl and set aside.
Deglaze the pan with the homemade chicken stock. You can buy an awesome stock kit from the Grass Roots store or reserve some bones throughout your cooking adventures until you have enough to make your own. The reason this is important in this particular recipe is that we are going to want as much natural gelatin from our bones to be able to form a proper skin layer to our cassoulet.
(*If you cannot use homemade stock, it will be alright to add a package of bloomed gelatin powder to your broth as it cooks, or subsequently you can mix the reserved fat from browning the sausages and chicken legs to a cup of bread crumbs and sprinkle that on top before browning.)
Drain and rinse the soaked beans and add them to pot alongside the ham hock and the vegetables. Simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are just tender. Remove the onion and carrot from the pot. Pull out the hock and remove the meat from the bone. It should be tender enough to pull away, but use a knife if necessary. Trim away any heavy connective tissue and fat from the hock and add the hock meat back to the pot along with the chicken drums, and then the garlic sausages on top.
Set the oven to 325 and bake the cassoulet for 2-3 hours, until the crusty skin forms on top. Remove from the oven and set aside for a bit to cool. Serve alongside a pot of wilted mustard greens with some crusty buttered sourdough and enjoy with a group of friends.