Introduction: Cassoulet De Castelnaudary - the Ultimate Slow Food From Gascony
Every culture has a dish which, since time began, has been at its very heart and hearth. Whether cooked in an old cast iron pot, suspended over an open fire, in an earthenware pot or in or on a clay oven or even on an upturned shield, it is usually a great peasant dish. It had no written recipe nor measures and was added to and amended over time but still with the same basic ingredients. This is slow food in every sense of the word, made from good quality, slowly-grown and carefully-raised ingredients and as often or not cooked continuously.
In the case of the following you may be quite surprised in the recommended cooking time, although I have to admit to only keeping mine on the go for a week so far!
The poet Anatole France was a great devotee of cassoulet and has written what has become the definitive description of this dish:
'I am going to lead you to a little tavern in the rue Vavin, chez Clémence, who makes only one dish but a stupendous one: le cassoulet de Castelnaudary, which contains the legs of confit d'oie, haricot beans, previously blanched, pork fat and little sausages. To be good it must have cooked very slowly and for a long time. Clémence's cassoulet has been cooking for twenty years. She replenishes the pot sometimes with goose, sometimes with pork fat, sometimes she puts in a sausage or some haricot but it is always the same cassoulet. ..'
Although often thought of as a Winter staple, we have eaten cassoulet in Gascony, the land of d'Artagnan on a blazing hot Summer's day and it was good. Similarly we have also eaten it on the beach in early March cooked on a home-made fuelless cooker. There is a film of this at the end of this instructable.
Slow food is very close to my heart, 'Pavlovafowl', my name, is a version of the Padoue, Padovana, or Polish Crested, a breed of chicken we raise and love and which is one of the emblems of the slow food movement, being an ancient and rustic race despite its fantastically frou-frou appearance.
Step 1: Ingredients, Temperatures & Times
All the ingredients are all organically grown or raised. The beans used are what in English is called haricot, in France this means bean so is a bit misleading! Traditionally an ancient variety called Tarbais is used because it is large and buttery and takes the flavour of the stock so well. I use them or Coco, (pictured above after cooking) which are smaller, but essentially what you need to make this is a white bean variety, grown to be dried and kept.
Ingredients for a large cassoulet (see volumes below)
Meat - usually pork, ham, duck either fresh or preserved, preserved goose, sausages, merguez, chorizo - alone or in combinations
White 'haricot' beans around a ¼ kilo or ½ lb
A good rich home-made stock! This is one of the most important parts of the cassoulet, as without it you will not get the depth of flavour. I usually make boiled and roast ham hock and then keep part of the ham and all of the remaining stock to make a cassoulet. This way I get the optimum nutrient and flavour from the meat and vegetables in the original stew.
4 Tomatoes or 2 tablespoons of tomato purée
Onions and garlic
4 large carrots
Herbes de Province I use a tisane mix for this which is made up of, thyme, savory, marjoram, rosemary, hyssop and oregano
A stick of celery
A glass of red wine
The dish I use is a stainless steel stew pan 37cm x 26cm x 5.5cm or 14½" x 10½" x 2¼", this will take most of the stock in my ham hock pot, which once the meat and vegetables have been removed, is around 5 litres or 10½ pints. You need a goodly amount of stock as you will need to add extra as the cooking progresses and if in particular you want to keep this dish going for several meals.
Temperatures & Times
The cassoulet should cook at around 150ºC to 160ºC or 300ºF to 325ºF for at least 3 hours.
Step 2: Power Soaking Beans and Making Stock
Quick Soak aka Power Soak Method for Beans
There are all sorts of arguments about soaking beans but we use the following method. Wash the beans and then put them into a large pan of cold water. The water should be 5cm to 7.5cm or 2" to 3" above the beans. Bring to the boil quickly on a high heat. Boil for a minute and then remove from the heat. Leave to soak for one hour, then drain them and rinse them. They are now ready to be cooked. The beans are then cooked by placing them in a good volume of cold water, with 5cm or 2" above the level of the beans. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until they are tender but not breaking up. This way when you add them to your cassoulet they will be hot and ready to absorb the flavours.
Making the Stock
As I mentioned above the most important ingredient in this dish is really the stock. For the flavour to carry throughout, the stock will also need a certain level of fat. This is one of the reasons for using preserved goose (or duck), as this is traditionally kept in earthenware jars under a layer of goose fat. The rich creamy yellow fat is packed with beta-carotene from the goose's 100% pasture-foraged diet. A good stock is what makes the dish so capable of being extended and added to without detriment to the flavour, as suggested in the words of Anatole France above.
If you are not using the stock from a recent meal such as with my ham hocks, then I suggest you take every opportunity to build up a reserve of bone broths and stews from every meat meal you eat. This is not only of importance to taste but also to the integrity of your skeleton and teeth and particularly a good insurance against all the conditions that are de facto attributed to old age. It is also a way of ensuring that your organic meat budget will go a lot lot further. That is another reason I enjoy dishes like this, they stand for a time when food was valued, unlike our present wasteful society. Throwing away food runs counter to all that organic stands for, if an animal is to be eaten we should eat it all and with organic you are safe so doing, as there are no toxic residues in the fat and offal. You can make bone broth from the cheapest cuts of meat even if you don't fancy actually eating them, pigs' trotters spring to mind, although we actually do eat them. The stock from the initial boiling of them makes a superb gelantinous base from which to build up a dish such as cassoulet.
You can use all types of vegetables to make up your stock and even though you may eat these, they will still have added something to the mix. The addition of a sweet potato, red onion or parsnip will also add that delicate hint of sweetness and give yet another layer of flavour and lift the effect of other 'harsher' flavours such as turnip or swede.
Step 3: Method and Slow Cooking With a Fuelless Cooker or Hay Box
Starting with the stock add the chopped tomatoes or paste and heat to just around boiling.
If you are using uncooked sausage or merguez, brown them first in the pan with the garlic and onion.
Then add them to the other meat(s) in your stewing pan or earthenware dish along with the cooked beans. As you see above each time I make this dish I use different ingredients and sometimes even different beans - these above (bottom row of photos) are Tarbais.
Now add your stock, vegetables and herbs.
Pour on a glass of red wine. I always use a good robust one such as a Merlot or Syrah, it is a mistake to use rich flavoured quality ingredients and then add a jejune wine, better to leave it out all together. If you intend drinking wine with this dish and it needs a full-bodied red, from an area with plenty of sun, then use that. The cassoulet is now ready for the oven.
After the cassoulet has begun to thicken (around a half hour into cooking) I add a layer of breadcrumbs and then as cooking continues I break the crust, mixing it in and adding more stock. I then add a further layer of bread crumbs. The breadcrumbs create a crust and keep the dish moist but if you are gluten free then you just need to keep your eye on the dish adding more stock and more frequently.
This is a dish that stands alone but I like to follow it with a green salad.
Hope you enjoy it and now, if you'd like to, sit back and see how we used this recipe to test out our home-made fuelless cooker on a very cold Winter's day on the beach.
For more recipes, feel free to visit at http://simplyorganicrecipes.blogspot.com
All the very best from Normandie,
Pavlovafowl aka Sue