Nothing could have prepared me for the vision that appeared in the dining room of Domaine Balthazar in Carcassonne, that Sunday lunchtime in 2008. As a food and travel writer, I’d journeyed all the way from New York City to write a simple article on the history of cassoulet. I thought I would meet a chef, taste some beans and head home.
Instead, a group of ‘Oompa-Loompas’ in red robes and matching berets emerged carrying a stretcher wrapped in red and gold silk on which sat two gargantuan clay pots that sent clouds of caramelised steam wafting straight into my nose. Singing in what I would later discover to be the ancient Occitan language, the men and women proceeded slowly towards the table.
One forkful of this magical bubbly concoction and I was transported back to the mini Downton Abbey I grew up in near Lake Geneva. It didn’t make any sense. It would take more than 10 years for me to uncover the reasons behind what would become a true obsession with cassoulet. Over time, I wrote about the pots, I wrote about the chefs and the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet (!), I wrote about the meats, the herbs and, yes, about the beans as well.
But then I realised that the stew was the thread that led me to face my childhood, my family’s heritage, and its dramatic history. Finally, I was able to confront one of the primal questions that keep all of us up at night: Where’s home?
Gateway cassoulet recipe
I will probably get a lot of flak for this recipe. ‘What?! You’ve taken us through this entire exercise and now you’re giving us a recipe that is not authentic?’ I know, I know, but I call it ‘gateway’ for a reason.
As a nice entry-level weekday cassoulet, this is not bad. Try it, tweak it, double it for your friends, and then, when you are ready, go on and tackle the real thing!
Preparation time 40 mins
Cooking time 2.5 hours
- 500g dried cannellini beans or other large white beans
- 350g fresh pork belly with skin, cut into 3cm cubes
- 1 tbsp duck fat
- 200g fresh pork sausage, cut into 5cm-long pieces
- 2 confit duck legs
- 1 carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1 large onion, peeled and quartered
- 8 garlic cloves, peeled
- 1 parsley sprig (leaves only)
- 3 thyme sprigs (leaves only)
- 1⁄2 tbsp salt
- 1⁄4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- freshly ground black peppe
- 1 litre shop-bought chicken stock
1. Rinse the beans thoroughly, then soak for at least 2 hours but no longer than 12 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 175°C/350°F/gas 3.
3. Drain the beans and rinse under cold water. Fill a 4-litre Dutch oven (a cast iron casserole dish) with water and bring to a boil. Blanch the beans in the boiling water for 7 minutes, then drain and run under cold water again. Set aside in a bowl.
4. In a blender, combine the onion, garlic, parsley, thyme, salt and 60ml of water. Purée until smooth.
5. In the Dutch oven, sear the pork belly cubes over a medium heat until browned on all sides – about 5 minutes. Stir often to prevent burning. Remove and set aside.
6. Melt the duck fat in the Dutch oven over a medium heat, then cook the sausage, stirring frequently until brown – about 5 minutes. Remove the sausage, set aside, then add the duck legs, sear for about 1 minute per side. Remove and set aside. Add the garlic/onion purée and reduce heat to low. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring regularly and scraping any pieces of meat stuck to the bottom.
7. Add the purée to the beans, along with the carrot, and mix until well-coated.
8. Transfer about one-third of the bean mix to the Dutch oven, enough to cover the bottom.
9. Layer the pork belly over the beans, then the sausages. Finally, place the duck legs on top and cover with the remaining beans. Season with the nutmeg and a good grind of pepper. Add just enough stock to cover the beans, and reserve any remaining stock to add during the cooking process.
10. Bake uncovered until the cassoulet comes to a simmer on the sides and a crust begins to form – about 40 minutes. Reduce the heat to 150°C/300°F/gas 2) and cook for 1 hour 45 minutes, checking regularly to break the crust with the back of a spoon and ensure that the cassoulet remains moist. Add stock or water if necessary.
11. Remove the cassoulet from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before serving.
Award-winning food and travel writer Sylvie Bigar was born in Switzerland and lives in New York City. She has written for a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Food & Wine and Le Figaro. Bigar also co-authored chef Daniel Boulud’s definitive cookbook Daniel: My French Cuisine. Her book Cassoulet Confessions was published in September 2022 and is available through Amazon UK.
The wines to drink with Gateway cassoulet
Cassoulet is hearty, there’s no getting away from it – so do you go for a refreshing counterpoint or a wine with equal heft? It will probably depend on your personal taste and the time of day – or day of the week – you’re serving it. If it’s a midweek choice, I’d be inclined to go for a lighter red, and maybe something more robust for a Sunday lunch or a cold winter’s night. The southwest of France, where cassoulet originates, offers both. My favourite pairing is Marcillac, which tends to be lighter, but you could go for a Madiran or an old-school Cahors rather than the sweet-fruited style that mimics Argentinian Malbec. Southern Rhône and Languedoc blends of Grenache and Syrah – especially the latter – also work well, or even a natural, maybe biodynamic, Bordeaux. Looking beyond the region I’d also be happy with a Mencía from neighbouring Spain or, frankly, even a Rioja. White? Not for me, but an earthy white Grenache/Garnacha would do the job.
By Fiona Beckett
Wines selected by the Decanter team