- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2008

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

Visit France in winter,and you’ll find comfort food — hearty casserole dishes like coqauvin (chicken in wine), choucroute (sauerkraut with pork and sausages) and cassoulet (white beans and meats) — at bistros and brasseries where country cooking has been elevated to an art form.

My favorite is cassoulet, a dish someone once said was a meal “with a French accent and a sense of history.” You can also add “and a bit of controversy” to the definition, since its origins and ingredients are often at odds.

Under general agreement, cassoulet is translated as “bean pot stew,” “white bean stew” or “meat and bean casserole.” It’s possibly the most famous dish in regions of southwest France, and it is named, some say, for the cassole, or glazed earthenware dish in which the cassoulet is cooked.

White beans, the main ingredient, were brought to France from Spain in the 16th century, so some credit Spain for its origin.

Regardless of where it came from, cassoulet is, without question, a heartwarming, perfect-for-winter stew, slow-cooked and flavored with onion, carrot, herbs and cloves.

Like soups and stews that are the staples of agricultural areas, local meats were added to the simmering pot as they became available, so the basic recipe does have some variations. To cite the old cooking cliche — “there are as many recipes as there are cooks” — is not unreasonable, but it is generally accepted that original cassoulet recipes come from the towns of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse.

The Castelnaudary version contains mostly pork, including sausages, pork rind, fresh pork and even pig knuckles. Lamb is the staple of a Carcassonne recipe, such as the one following from the Hotel de la Cite, situated within the medieval walls of the city. During hunting season, you might find game birds like partridge, quail or pigeon. Toulouse provides the most elaborate version, with any combination of mutton, bacon, sausage and confit (goose or duck preserved in fat).

While this is a classic one-pot meal, you should expect to spend a day or two preparing it — a task that seems more daunting than it really is. To simplify things, you can order a cassoulet kit from D’Artagnan (800/327-8246 or www.dartagnan.com), a mail-order company that specializes in organic game and poultry, free-range meats, smoked and cured charcuterie, wild mushrooms, truffles and foie gras. The kit includes duck confit; duck, garlic, pork and Armagnac sausages; ventreche (cured pork belly); duck fat; demi-glace; coco tarbais (white beans); and this recipe.

Cassoulet D’Artagnan

1½ pounds great northern beans, rinsed and picked over

½ pound ventreche (cured pork belly) in one piece

10 garlic cloves

2 medium onions, cut in half

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

Bouquet garni made of 5 parsley sprigs, 3 celery leaves, 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf, 5 cloves and 10 peppercorns, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied

10 cups water

4 duck legs confit

3 tablespoons duck and veal demi-glace dissolved in 3 cups of water

2 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 links (8.5 ounces) duck and Armagnac sausages, lightly browned, then cut in half crosswise

½ pound fresh garlic sausage, cut into 8 slices

1/4 cup duck fat, melted

Cover the beans with water and soak overnight. Drain and put into a large heavy casserole, preferably enameled cast-iron, with ventreche, garlic, 1 onion, the carrot and bouquet garni.

Cover with the 10 cups of water and bring to a boil. Simmer over low heat, stirring often, until beans are barely tender, about 1 hour. Drain bean mixture in a colander over a bowl, discarding onion and bouquet garni.

Return beans and liquid to the casserole, add remaining onion, duck legs, demi-glace mixture and tomatoes, and bring to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and pepper, and simmer on low heat until legs are tender when pierced with a fork, about 15 minutes.

Drain bean mixture in a colander over a bowl again, reserving 5 cups of the cooking liquid. Remove ventreche and cut into half-inch squares. Remove duck legs and cut each in half at the joint. Season beans with 1 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Place half of the bean mixture in the casserole. Add duck legs, duck sausages, ventreche and garlic sausage, and cover with remaining beans. Add reserved cooking liquid and drizzle duck fat over top. Cover and bake until hot and bubbling, about 2 to 2½ hours.

The cassoulet may be prepared ahead to this point, then cooled and refrigerated for up to 3 days. Bring to room temperature before proceeding. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. Uncover casserole and bake until top is browned, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve. Makes 8 servings.

Carcassonne cassoulet

The chef at Hotel de la Cite, situated inside Carcassonne, the largest medieval walled city in Europe, serves this cassoulet at the hotel’s Brasserie Chez Saskia.

8 ounces goose fat

5 ounces lamb shoulder, cut into small pieces

4 ounces pork rind, cut into small pieces

5 ounces pork ribs, cut into cubes

1 large onion, diced

8 cups duck or chicken stock

Bouquet garni made of 5 parsley sprigs, 3 celery leaves, 1 thyme sprig, 1 bay leaf, 5 cloves and 10 peppercorns, wrapped in cheesecloth and tied

10 ounces imported Toulouse sausages or pork sausage

8 ounces white beans

2 cloves

1 carrot, cut into small pieces

2 duck legs or thighs confit

1/4 cup plain bread crumbs

In a large pot over medium heat, heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of the goose fat. Add the lamb, pork rind and pork ribs, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, or until browned. With a slotted spoon, remove the meat and set aside. Stir the onions into the pan and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, or until soft but not browned. Return the meat to the pan, add the stock, bouquet garni, and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.

In a large skillet over medium heat, heat 2 to 3 more tablespoons of the goose fat. Add the sausages and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until browned. Set aside.

In a separate saucepan over medium heat, bring 8 cups of water, the beans, cloves and carrot to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook for 30 minutes, or until the beans are semisoft.

Drain the water and transfer the beans to the pot with the meats. Continue to simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the stock has been reduced to three-quarters and the beans are cooked (the beans should be tender but not mushy).

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Transfer the mixture to a large ceramic casserole, add the duck confit and sausages, cover with the bread crumbs, and bake for about 20 minutes, or until the bread crumbs are browned and the cassoulet is heated through. Makes 4 servings.

Simple cassoulet

This simplified version of the traditional long-simmering bean stew has lots of flavor, easy-to-find ingredients, and can be ready in less than an hour.

2 tablespoons olive oil

8 ounces chicken or pork sausages cut into 1-inch pieces

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound boneless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces

2 16-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

1 large carrot, cut into small pieces

3 tablespoons chopped tomatoes

1 cup dry white wine

½ cup chicken broth

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley or 2 teaspoons dried

1 thyme sprig or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 bay leaf

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon butter, melted

½ cup plain bread crumbs

In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the sausages and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until browned. With a slotted spoon, remove the sausages and set aside. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, and add the onion, garlic and chicken. Cook, stirring frequently, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the chicken is nearly cooked.

Stir in the beans, carrots, tomatoes, wine, chicken broth, parsley, thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the carrots are tender. Stir in the sausages.

Preheat the broiler. Transfer the cassoulet to a casserole dish and remove the bay leaf. Toss the bread crumbs with the melted butter and sprinkle over the cassoulet. Place the casserole under the broiler (at least 4 inches from the heat source) for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the crumbs are lightly browned. Makes 4 servings.

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