Traditional French Cassoulet

Traditional French Cassoulet When it comes to cooking, I’m always up for a challenge.

The first time it happened, was maybe my sophomore year in high school—or possibly even younger, and I was desperate to make this incredibly difficult chocolate cake that I saw on Great Chefs. It had dark and white chocolate, chocolate ganache, and chocolate shavings.I had no business attempting to make this cake but I did it anyway.

The cake was beautiful. Though it didn’t turn out exactly as it was supposed to, it was still impressive. (So was the mess. Just ask my mother!)

Over the years I have attempted many other considerable challenges. Fresh butternut squash ravioli was one. There were also a couple of dishes from the master, Julia Child. Lately I have found that most recipes from Thomas Keller can be tough to make look “right”. They tasted pretty good, though.

There is one dish I have really wanted to make over the years that isn’t exactly difficult, but does require some time: Traditional French Cassoulet.

The main reason I have put it off is that it usually requires a Confit of Duck that I really don’t have time to make. A few weeks ago, I found a post on Serious Eats, the clouds parted, and the sun shone down. (Cue angelic singing.) J. Kenji López-Alt’s recipe made making a cassoulet so much more approachable, that I just had to try it. So over the weekend, I did.

It still required work and time, but the end result was worth it. The beans were unbelievably tasty and creamy. The chicken was tender. My only complaint was that it was too salty for my tastes (López-Alt warns about this in the post.) The rest of my diners didn’t think so. I include my kids in this—they actually went back for seconds. I think next time I will cut the amount of salt pork in half just to see. And there will be a next time.

This is definitely a Sunday dinner type dish because of the time involved, but the recipe is a keeper and it is the perfect lazy, rainy weekend dinner.

Traditional French Cassoulet
Serious Eats
Recipe by: J. Kenji López-Alt

Yield: Serves 6 to 8
Active time: 1 hour
Total time: About 6 hours, plus overnight for beans to soak

Soaking the beans in salted water overnight helps keep them tender as they cook.
Chicken used in place of the traditional duck picks up tons of flavor from the other cured meat products and comes out meltingly tender and meaty.
Adding gelatin to the cooking liquid helps it form a better crust on the casserole as it bakes.

Note: If you are using homemade chicken stock that already has lots of gelatin (meaning it thickens and gels when chilled), you can omit the unflavored gelatin here; if your stock is store-bought, or if it’s homemade but watery even when chilled, the unflavored gelatin is an essential ingredient.

1 pound dried cannellini beans
Kosher salt
1 quart homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken stock
3 packets (3/4 ounces) unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons duck fat (optional)
8 ounces salt pork, cut into 3/4-inch cubes (or try 4 to 6 ounces for a less salty dish)
6 to 8 pieces of chicken thighs and drumsticks, or 4 whole chicken leg quarters
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound garlic sausage (2 to 4 links depending on size)
1 large onion, finely diced (about 1 cup)
1 carrot, unpeeled, cut into 3-inch sections
2 stalks celery, cut into 3-inch sections
1 whole head garlic
4 sprigs parsley
2 bay leaves
6 cloves

In a large bowl, cover beans with 3 quarts water and add 3 tablespoons salt. Stir to combine and let sit at room temperature overnight. Drain and rinse beans and set aside.

Adjust oven rack to lower middle position and preheat oven to 300°F. Place stock in a large liquid measuring cup and sprinkle gelatin over the top. Set aside. Heat duck fat (if using) in a large Dutch oven over high heat until shimmering. Add salt pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned all over, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside. (If not using duck fat, cook pork with no additional fat.)

Season chicken pieces with pepper (do not add salt) and place skin side-down in now-empty pan. Cook without moving until well browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Flip chicken pieces and continue cooking until lightly browned on second side, about 3 minutes longer. Transfer to bowl with salt pork.

Add sausages and cook, turning occasionally, until well-browned on both sides. Transfer to bowl with salt pork and chicken. Drain all but 2 tablespoons fat from pot.

Add onions to pot and cook, stirring and scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Cook until onions are translucent but not browned, about 4 minutes. Add drained beans, carrot, celery, garlic, parsley, bay leaves, cloves, and stock (including gelatin mixture if needed). Bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce to low, cover the Dutch oven and cook until beans are almost tender but retain a slight bite, about 45 minutes.

Using tongs, remove carrots, celery, parsley, bay leaves, and cloves and discard. Add meats to pot and stir to incorporate, making sure that the chicken pieces end up on top of the beans with the skin facing upwards. Beans should be almost completely submerged. Transfer to oven and cook, uncovered, until a thin crust forms on top, or for about 2 hours. Add more water by pouring it carefully down the side of the pot as necessary to keep beans mostly covered.

Break crust with a spoon and shake pot gently to redistribute. Return to oven and continue cooking, stopping to break and shake the crust every 30 minutes until you reach the 4 1/2 hour mark. Return to oven and continue cooking undisturbed until the crust is deep brown and thick, about 5 to 6 hours total.

Serve immediately.

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