Here is my own tried and true cassoulet recipe – the most famous of the many bean dishes of south-west France. There are as many variations as there are cooks, and the renowned cassoulet towns of Toulouse, Castelnaudary and Carcassonne all include significant variations. In ordinary households beans will often be the mainstay of the meal, but a cassoulet is always special and will be prepared with a wide variety of meats.
Little nuggets of gelatinous pork rind are to be found in many bean recipes. Rolled, trimmed pork rind, already cooked in pork fat, is widely available in south-west markets and butchers’ stalls, but in Australia your butcher may need advance notice to supply it.
I find it simplest to cook this dish in a large, deep baking dish or, failing that, a stockpot, and then to assemble the cassoulet in two or more deep pottery casseroles for serving. If you do not have anything large enough for the initial cooking, either halve the quantities of ingredients or divide the ingredients and cook the cassoulet in two separate pots. It can simmer either on top of the stove or in a moderate oven (180ºC), again depending on your facilities.
1 kg haricot beans, soaked overnight
4 tablespoons rendered duck or pork fat
1 fresh pork neck
1 kg skinned, boned salted belly pork
3 fresh pork hocks
freshly ground black pepper
5 litres veal stock
1 cup chopped, seeded tomato (fresh or canned)
2 whole heads garlic, unpeeled
1 bouquet garni (thyme, bay leaf, parsley stalks)
rind from ½ loin of pork, left in 1 piece
4 large onions, chopped
6 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
250 g minced pork fat, worked with 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
sea salt (optional)
2 boiling sausages
12 confit duck legs, skinned (reserve the skin)
2 cups fresh white breadcrumbs
Drain the beans, then put them in a saucepan and barely cover with cold water. Bring to simmering point and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse in a colander. Set aside.
In your selected pot or pan, heat half the duck fat until it is rippling. Brown the pork neck, then the belly pork and then the hocks, removing each piece of meat to an oven tray as it has been browned. Return the browned meats to the pot, grind over a generous amount of black pepper and pour over the stock. Add the tomato, garlic and bouquet garni and lay the sheet of pork rind on top. Simmer for 1 hour (or cook for 1 hour in an oven that has been preheated to 180ºC).
Meanwhile, lightly brown the onion and carrot in batches in the remaining duck fat. After the meats have simmered for 1 hour, add the sautéed onion and carrot, the beans and the paste of pork fat and garlic. Simmer for a further 45 minutes, then test to see if the beans are tender. If not, continue to simmer until they are cooked.
Remove the pieces of meat to an oven tray. When cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin from the pork hock and chop all the meat into chunks. Cut the pork rind into thin strips, about 1 cm x 6 cm. Fish out from the pot the whole heads of garlic and squeeze them through a coarse sieve, letting the garlic puree drop back into the beans and juices. Taste the juices for seasoning and add a little salt if necessary.
Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, then reduce to a bare simmer. Drop in the sausages and cook for 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on the variety. Lift out and, when cool enough to handle, remove the skin and slice thickly.
To assemble the cassoulet, settle a layer of the beans and vegetables on the bottom of your serving dish or dishes. Scatter over half the meats and sausage slices and some strips of pork rind, so that guests serving themselves will find a selection. Add some more beans and vegetables. Now ladle over the juices to come almost to the top of the dish. Cover with a thick layer of breadcrumbs and then moisten the crumbs with a little more juice. Reheat slowly in a moderate oven (180C) for at least 45 minutes. Serve as soon as the juices are bubbling and the crust is a deep-gold colour.
Put the reserved duck skin on an oven tray lined with baking paper. Crisp in a moderate oven and crumble over a green salad for a delectable and perfect accompaniment to cassoulet. Any excess beans and juices can be served a few days later (when the memory of the cassoulet has faded a little) as a gratin on the side of some other dish.
Note: Some cooks insist on pushing the crust of the cassoulet down in to the juices once or twice and waiting for the crust to re-form. I prefer not to do this as it can make the cassoulet stodgy – each time the crust is pushed down, more juices are absorbed.