Created in collaboration with David Nielsen
During the cool, dark months ahead, I prepare to find joy in the kitchen through the creation, the process, the preparation and, ultimately, the act of eating all the deliciousness that I find on my plate and in my bowl.
In the past couple of years, I have found my perfect partner in life and in the kitchen. Our super bonus is that we dance with grace together in the kitchen because our minds are very complementary when it comes to the culinary arts.
Winter months seem to bring this to the surface more so than other times of the year. We carve out time to plan menus, cook and eat together. Depending on what we choose to prepare, we tend to talk it through, sometimes for days leading up to the actual meal preparation. This particular meal – cassoulet – was one of those experiences.
David has made cassoulet before – thank you, Trio Restaurant, for his introduction to this dish all those years ago – but we decided we wanted to amplify and take the slow road with the dish this time.
We dug into the history of farm-style French cooking. Starting with dried beans and a whole duck, we found locally sourced sausages and the freshest carrots, onions and celery. We studied up on confit – specifically, duck confit. With a bit of direction, we learned how to butcher and quarter our duck. Putting our heads together, we jumped into the preparation, slowly working our way through it one step at a time. The process from beginning to end took about three days.
Confit (pronounced cone-fee), by definition, is a preservation process. It originated in the southwest region of France, and before the days of refrigeration, confit was used as a way to preserve meat and some vegetables from spoiling.
In simple terms, you slowly cook the meat – submerged in its own fat – at a very low temperature over a long period of time. During the process, the fat preserves the meat and makes for a very tender, succulent result.
Originally, it was stored in a covered vessel in the root cellar, but modern times allow you to store it in the refrigerator for weeks and up to a month. Once you have your duck confit at your disposal, the sky’s the limit on what you can do with it.
Cassoulet is a French country dish that can vary regionally and depending on what you have available, but all versions start with a base of white beans. Then, traditionally, you’ll find a mixture of sausage, duck confit and maybe some other kind of meat such as chicken or mutton – whatever you have on hand is perfect.
These ingredients – combined with the vegetable trinity of carrots, celery and onions, plus some aromatic herbs – really tie this French white-bean casserole dish together. It is the perfect meal to share with your love in front of a fire on a cold, blustery winter night.
The first thing we do when we step into our kitchen is put on a little music to set the mood. This particular meal calls for something like Astrud Gilberto, the Brazilian-born jazz singer best known for “The Girl from Ipanema.” Next, we don our aprons and get to work.
Butcher (or Purchase) Duck Legs
If you’re working with a frozen duck, make sure you give yourself at least two days to thaw the bird. Once it’s completely thawed, it’s time to butcher it. There are many videos out there to supplement this discussion and guide you through the process.
Start by removing the leg and thigh quarters and set them aside. The trick to creating the lollipop effect to the leg pieces is to cut the tendon found in the leg. This allows the leg meat to crawl up the bone when cooking, making your confit look like it was prepared in a fancy French restaurant.
Split the breast bone and flatten the duck on the cutting-board surface. Remove the backbone, which should leave you with the two breasts, which can be used in the confit or saved for something else later. (We chose to confit one of the duck breasts to shred into the beans.)
Save the backbone and the other parts you won’t use here for making soup stock. You can do this in real time or freeze the parts to make stock later.
You will need a food processor and a Dutch oven with a lid.
2-3 shallots, skin removed
1 leek, with the thick, green leaves removed
1 bunch of scallions
3-4 garlic cloves, skin removed
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, stems removed
Fresh thyme (one store-bought container), stems removed
Kosher salt to taste
1 tsp whole black peppercorns
Place all the ingredients except the kosher salt and peppercorns in the food processor and pulse until chopped. This should yield 1-2 cups of the allium-based dry brine. Put half of the brine in the bottom of a Dutch oven.
Rub the legs and thighs of the duck with a good amount of kosher salt. Put the remaining dry brine on top of the duck so the meat is completely covered. Sprinkle a teaspoon of whole black peppercorns over the meat. Cover and let sit for 24-36 hours.
Low and Slow
Preheat the oven to 200° F.
• 2 quarts of duck fat (purchase this at specialty food markets) – reserve one tablespoon for the next step
Rinse the duck quarters with cold water, pat dry and set aside. Rinse out the Dutch oven, then place the duck back into the Dutch oven. Cover the duck completely with the duck fat (and freeze any that you do not use for later use), put the lid on, and place the Dutch oven in the preheated oven for 3-4 hours. The duck is finished when it looks like it wants to fall off the bone.
You can use this right away or allow it to cool and store the confit in the refrigerator, submerged in the fat, for up to a month.
The question is, dried or canned beans? Typically, my life does not allow me enough time to use dried beans, but we wanted to follow the traditional cassoulet path by using dried beans – and it worked out great! If you decide to use canned beans, skip the following step.
2 cups dried white beans (great northern or navy)
1 tsp salt
Rinse the beans, and place them in a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Cover the beans with enough water so that there’s about three inches of water over the beans. Add the salt. Stir the beans briefly, cover the pot, and set it aside. The beans should soak for a minimum of 24 hours.
After the beans have soaked, drain and give them a quick rinse. If you’re using canned beans, rinse two 15-ounce cans of great northern or navy beans, and continue with the following steps.
Use an oven-safe pot with a tight-fitting lid. Preheat the oven to 250° F.
2 medium carrots, diced
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and smashed
1 medium red or white onion, diced
1 pound of cooked sausage of your choice, chopped
1 Tbsp duck fat
Add all the ingredients to the pot. Sauté over medium-high heat until the onions are translucent, about five minutes. Add in:
1 cup white wine
1 cup of water
Handful each of rosemary, thyme and parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the pot in the oven, and cook for 3-4 hours or until the beans are tender. Check the beans throughout the cooking time. You may need to add more water or wine throughout the process because you should not let the beans dry out.
Pro tip: When using dried beans, you may find that they have not softened all the way through. In that case, add a teaspoon of baking soda to the bean pot about halfway through the cooking process. Stir it in, and the beans will foam up. I always keep a sheet pan in the oven under my cook pot to catch any boilover.
The beans are finished when they’re fork tender. Shred the confit duck breast and incorporate it into the beans.
Putting It All Together
This is the exciting part: You are very close to indulging in the feast!
Reheat the duck legs and thighs in a cast-iron skillet. Bring the pan to medium-high heat, and add a drizzle of olive oil to the pan. When hot, place the duck meat in the pan to sear the skin. The meat is very delicate at this point and wants to fall off the bone, so be gentle.
Scoop a big spoonful of beans onto a plate; place a piece of duck on top; and sprinkle with aromatic herbs.
Cassoulet pairs nicely with a hefeweizen beer or nice glass of pinot noir. This is a very special dish, so enjoy every single bite.