Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re all safe, warm, and with your families. I’m sure it’s cold wherever you are, so I have the perfect meal for you.
With cold weather comes our favorite comfort food dishes. Everyone has their favorite. Most are almost always soups and stews. When I first flipped through my copy of Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, one of the first things that popped out at me was his recipe for Cassoulet, the classic French bean stew. It’s true peasant food, and it’s my kind of peasant food.
It’s a fantastic dish to make, delicious to eat, and really not hard at all. Best of all, it doesn’t take a whole Hell of a lot of time, as long as you spread the work over three days. There are several tasks, none of them very involved. Simple food is the best food after all, right?
You’ll be making duck confit, which is something that is delicious in and of itself. So even if you don’t want to go through the trouble of making the cassoulet portion, at least try the confit. Believe me, it’s heaven. Once made, it will last in your refrigerator for weeks. So if you want, you can make the confit first, and get to the cassoulet later.
To make duck confit you’ll need:
4 duck legs
2 cups duck fat
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 garlic clove
freshly cracked black pepper
On a clean cutting board, generously season the duck legs with the sea salt. Place in a shallow casserole dish, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the duck legs from the refrigerator, preheat your oven to 375 degrees F, then melt the duck fat in a saucepan over low to medium heat until it’s clear, remove from heat. Crack a small amount of black pepper over each duck leg, place the thyme, rosemary, and garlic with the duck legs, then cover the whole thing with the rendered duck fat. Cover the casserole dish with foil and put it in the oven. Cook for one hour. The meat should be tender enough to be able to pull the ankle of each leg from the joint without a whole lot of effort.
Cool the whole thing, then put it in the refrigerator as-is, sealed under the layer of fat. When you’re ready to use the confit, simply take them out of the fat, removing the excess fat. You can also warm it up to loosen the fat, which makes removing the legs easier, but it could dry them out, so be careful.
To prepare the cassoulet you’ll need:
5 cups white beans (northern white beans are my favorite)
2 lbs fresh pork belly
1 onion, quartered
1 bouquet garni (one sprig of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme, and one bay leaf – tied together or in a small cloth bag)
1/4 cup duck fat
6 pork sausages
3 onions, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove
4 confit duck legs
Place the beans in a large bowl and cover with water, leaving 2-3 inches of water above the beans. Soak overnight.
The next day, drain and rinse the beans and place them in a large pot. Add one pound of the pork belly, the quartered onion, and the bouquet garni. Cover with water, add some salt and pepper, then bring to a low simmer. Allow to simmer until the beans are tender – about an hour or so. Let the whole thing cool for about 30 minutes, then remove the onion and the bouquet garni. Carefully remove the pork belly, cut into 2-inch squares and set aside. Strain the beans, but save the liquid. That broth has all the flavor and we’re going to use it later.
In a saute pan, place 1/4 duck fat and render it over medium heat. When it’s clear, add the sausages and brown them on all sides. Remove them and set them aside, draining on paper towels. In that same pan, add the onions, the garlic clove, and the squares of pork belly and brown them together. When that’s all browned, add it to the blender with 2 tablespoons of the reserved stock and puree until smooth. Set this all aside.
Preheat your oven to 350 – it’s game time. Place the remaining pork belly (uncooked) in the bottom of a deep ovenproof earthenware dish. Line the inside of this with the porkbelly as if you were making a pie crust with it. In alternating layers, add the beans, then the sausages, then some more beans, then the duck confit, then some more beans, sausages, more beans, adding a dab of the blended puree to each layer. Pour the bean broth over all of this to just cover the top layer of beans. Save at least 1 cup of this broth in case we need it later.
Place that in the oven, uncovered, for 1 hour. After an hour, reduce the heat to 250 degrees F and cook for another hour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool. Refrigerate overnight.
When you’re ready to have this the next day, remove it from the refrigerator, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F and cook the whole thing for an hour. Break the crust along the top with a spoon and add that 1 cup of reserved cooking liquid. Reduce the heat to 250 degrees F and continue cooking for an additional 15 minutes. We want this thing to be hot from top to bottom.
Serve with a bottle of red burgundy, or a Belgian Quadruple or Dark Strong Ale.