By John Brooks
When people think of French food, they think of stuffy, complicated, unsatisfying cuisine: fragile sauces or soufflé that fail with the smallest inattention. This is sometimes true, but what is also true is the countryside in France is full of down to earth hard-working people who cook very good food with what the landscape provides. This recipe is just that. It incorporates waterfowl, some tougher chunks of critter, bacon, and beans. The ingredients in this recipe are less important than the process. Once you get the process down, you can make this dish personal, and use what you have.
(remember this fits my 5 quart pot. Your mileage may vary)
2 lbs white beans
1-2 lbs lamb/deer/elk/etc shoulder trimmed of silverskin and cut into 1-2 inch cubes
½ cup of flour (seasoned with salt and pepper)
2 tablespoons of fat (duck, bacon)
4 duck leg/thighs either confit or cooked and shredded.
1 quart of bird stock (turkey, chicken, duck) homemade or low sodium.
1 cup of white wine (you can use stock if you don’t have any)
1-2 cups of bread crumbs
¼ cup of parsley (if you want. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t)
10 rashers of bacon
The first step is to take some white beans and soak them overnight. Skip this step, and there will be regrets. Use any white bean. Red or pinto beans are too starchy this is not a place where we can substitute. My pot calls for 2 lbs. It is a 5 quart model. So the volumes I’m suggesting are going to fit that pot. Have a bigger pot? That’s fine, but you’re going to need more of everything. Smaller pot? less. This matters. The layers have to be of an appropriate thickness (1-2 inches), otherwise it won’t turn out.
To start, We need about a tablespoon of fat. Duck fat would be traditional, bacon grease is good, olive oil will do in a pinch. Heat the fat on medium-high heat. We need some red meat. Lamb, venison, elk would all work great. Shoulder, or neck meat are generally the order of the day, but well-trimmed rib meat of a larger critter would also work. We want tougher cuts trimmed of sinew and cut into cubes 1-2”. Salt the meat heavily then dust with flour. Just enough flour to coat very thinly. Brown the meat in the fat. Do so in small batches giving each piece about an inch of elbow room. In my pot a pound and a half takes three batches. Brown small pieces on at least two sides, larger pieces on at least 4. Set the meat aside.
When the meat is browned we need to deglaze the pan. Really all we’re doing is pouring (carefully) a cup of white wine in the (hot) pan and dissolving the brown stuff (called fond) at the bottom of the pan. If it sticks, then give it a scrape with a wooden spoon. Once the fond is dissolved, pull the pan off the heat, and set aside the liquid. Preheat your oven to 300 degrees, and start layering the dish.
On the bottom we need a full layer of bacon. This will give is some protection against scorching, and bacon tastes good. Cover the bacon with an inch or two of drained soaked beans. Cover this with a layer of our browned critter. Then another layer of beans. Then a layer of fowl. Traditionally this is done with duck confit. I’ll put a simple recipe below, but nearly every popular ‘Wild Game’ site has a recipe for duck confit. If you’re a water fowler, I encourage you to confit your duck legs. If you’re short on time or patience you can braise your duck/goose/turkey (hello, crock pot my old friend) and pick the meat. It won’t be quite as good, but this is a dish about using what you have. Do not pack the bird down too tightly we need liquid to be able to get through. Then more beans. Then a layer of bacon. Then a final layer of beans.
Now pour the wine back in, slowly. Then add stock. Chicken stock, duck stock, turkey stock, some sort of bird stock (about a quart). Homemade is best, if you get store-bought get the low sodium kind. The stock should come just up to, but not over, the top of the last layer of beans. Pour the stock in slowly. Let it seep through the layers and give the air bubbles between the layers time to come to the surface. Give the pot a little jiggle to make sure there are no trapped air bubbles.
The last layer is breadcrumbs. Traditionally there would be some finely chopped parsley mixed in with home-made breadcrumbs made from lightly toasted, slightly stale baguette, and that would be best. Store-bought would be ok, but if you are going to use store-bought use panko bread crumbs. Regular breadcrumbs in a can are often very salty. Skip the parsley if you want. Put enough of a layer of breadcrumbs that the top is dry to the touch.
Put your cassoulet in the oven (300 degrees) uncovered. If your breadcrumb layer is all the way at the tippy top of the pot, put a sheet pan under it as insurance. Keep the pot in the oven for 5-6 hours. Checking on it every hour or so. You know the dish is done when the breadcrumbs on top form a brown toasty crust, and no liquid bubbles up around the edges. Small puffs of steam are to be expected. When it is done take the cassoulet out of the oven and let it sit for at least 15 minutes (up to an hour). You should have a pot of silky beans, layered with rich meat, and topped with a crunchy crust. When I make a cassoulet in my 5 quart pot it feeds my family of four for two meals with some left over to take for lunch.
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