story and photos by John Nevadomski
A hearty and filling provincial classic, cassoulet was originally just a simple bean casserole from the rural wine making regions of the south of France that has evolved over time to become synonymous with any vaguely French baked bean dish. There are endless variations on the basic concept, most involving white beans and fatty preserved or smoked meats such as pork, goose or duck, even salmon makes a curious appearance in some iterations. The dish also often contains smoked sausages of all kinds along with winter root vegetables, making it comfort food with a sophisticated feel.
Some variations on the dish call for tomatoes or tomato paste, others have a bread crumb topping, but I prefer a paired down simple preparation. I have found that my favorite core ingredient to use for a fall/winter cassoulet is a smoked pork jowl, but this can be substituted with any smoked or preserved meat like a simple pork hock, turkey neck bones or confit duck legs. I also have found that the choice of sausage is of particular importance when making a good cassoulet, your sausage selection should be lightly smoked and have a fair amount of garlic bite, like a Linguiça or Kielbasa.
The best kitchen equipment to use for cooking this casserole is an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven, which is versatile enough to be used on the stove top to start and later on in the oven to finish. This particular regional version of cassoulet is something I have spent a few winters working on and I think has the perfect balance of everything that is good about cassoulet. It fills a cold winter night like nothing else, features familiar flavors, and pairs perfectly with any good crusty fresh bread and a glass of crisp, bright Finger Lakes white wine.
Prep time: 30 min
Cook time: Roughly 3 hours
You will need:
• 1lb bag dry great northern beans (any white beans can be used)
• 2-4 links of local smoked sausage (cut into 1-inch pieces)
• 1 Smoked Pork Jowl
• 1 bay leaf
• 1 bunch fresh Thyme (separated from stems)
• 1 cup dry Fingerlakes white wine
• 2 medium to large yellow cooking onions (large dice)
• 2-3 cloves hard neck garlic (roughly chopped)
• 3-4 Large Carrots (peeled and large, rustic dice)
• 4-8 cups Water (as needed)
• Olive Oil (as needed)
• Salt & Pepper (to taste)
Start by soaking the dry beans overnight in water. When ready to cook the following day, drain and rinse the beans under cold water and pour them into large Dutch oven or other heavy bottomed cooking pot. Add in the pork jowl, bay leaf and a dash of pepper. Fill the pot with water until all of the beans and the pork are completely covered.
Place on stovetop on high heat until boiling then reduce to a low simmer for about an hour. After an hour remove the bay leaf (discard) and the pork jowl (set aside, letting the jowl cool enough to be handled). Add additional water to cover the beans if necessary and continue to simmer on a low heat while preparing the second step.
Take the cooled jowl and remove the skin from the meat, discard the skin and shred or chop the meat into bite sized pieces and set aside. Heat a large pan on the stovetop to medium high heat, add in enough olive oil to thinly coat the pan. Once the oil begins to lightly smoke, add in the garlic, onion, thyme and lightly sauté until just starting to color.
Add in the shredded pork jowl, smoked sausage, and carrots and sauté a few minutes more until everything starts to color nicely. Turn to high heat and deglaze the pan by pouring in the white wine, stir thoroughly and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer for roughly 15 minutes until the wine begins to reduce and thicken. Add the wine/onion/pork mixture from the pan into the Dutch oven and thoroughly mix with the beans.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and place the Dutch oven on a middle rack and bake uncovered for two hours or until the Cassoulet has thickened, browned and is bubbling. Remove from oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving warm with crusty fresh bread and plenty of crisp Fingerlakes regional white wine.
J. Nevadomski is the author of the long-running “Highlife for Lowlifes” series and is a food and culture contributor to CITY News, WXXI