JUMP TO RECIPE -
Peasant food has been suffering abuse for years. Let’s take fondue, pizza and cassoulet; and before eyebrows ride so high up there won’t be any more forehead left, I’ll explain that all three have been snatched from the poor and given to the rich, as it often happens.
Fondue was kidnapped in the 70s and held hostage at dinner parties gathered around an enamelled pot with a silly tea light underneath; the diners neither knowing quite what to do or keen on doing it. And the endless cheese strings on the chins! The dish is one to consume in solitude or at least with just the closest family when decorum is asleep.
Pizza, I don’t know where to start. Less said soonest mended, if at all fixable. Just visualise the original flat bread smudged with tomato sauce and featuring a few chunks of fresh mozzarella. And now think of those stuffed-crust, all-day-breakfast, pineapple topped and wrapped in bacon productions of Domino’s or Pizza Hut… I rest my case.
Cassoulet seems to have been the most resilient of the abused staples, perhaps because it’s not such a completely simple thing – it’s a cult object. Originating from the stretch of southwestern France from Toulouse to Carcassone or even Narbonne, along the picturesque Canal du Midi, it has three cities battling for primacy, the only proper recipe and the founding fatherhood. Castelnaudry cook beans with duck confit and pork and claim to have invented it as a heartening fodder for the city defenders in the Hundred Years War British siege. Toulouse adds their excellent sausage and breadcrumbs on top. And Carcassone make theirs with lamb.
I have unashamedly bastardised and interbred the various versions going for what I like best: duck, mais oui bien sur, but not confit; I used fresh duck legs with much success. Pork belly provided the fat, a little bacon a little smokiness; and I sprinkled breadcrumbs over the casserole as well as the serving bowls. Mon Dieu, le paradis dans la bouche!
- 300g (10 oz.) dried haricot or cannellini beans
- 1 medium onion, peeled and studded with 5-6 whole cloves
- 1 celery stick or 1 small leek
- bouquet garni: 2 bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme, ½ bunch of parsley
- 2 duck legs
- 300g (10 oz.) diced pork
- belly, boneless rind trimmed and reserved
- 100g (3 oz.) diced pancetta or smoked streaky bacon
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, finely chopped
- 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 200ml (¾ cup) dry white wine
- 1 tbsp. tomato puree
- a bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- ½ bunch of thyme
- salt and black pepper
- For the topping:
- 2-3 slices of a day old white bread or ½ baguette, crust cut off
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 tbsp. fat from roasting the duck legs
- salt and pepper
Soak the beans overnight in at least 2l cold water. You can use tinned beans but they will invariably end up either too mushy or undercooked in the finished dish; it really pays off to soak beans from dried. It’s not a weeknight dish anyway and if you cook a large batch you can easily freeze the surplus to reheat on a weeknight.
Drain the beans the next day and discard the water. Place them in a large pot with 2l of fresh water. Add the onion, the bouquet garni, the celery or leek and the pork belly rind, rolled and tied with string. Bring the beans to the boil, turn the heat down and simmer them for an hour, skimming the foam off the surface a couple of times. Drain, discard the herbs, onion and rind and keep to one side.
While the beans are cooking, preheat the oven to 220C/450F/gas 7. Prick the skin on the duck legs with a sharp knife, place them in a roasting tin (a disposable one will be a good idea) and toast for 40 minutes. Leave in the tin to cool. Turn the oven down to 140C/275F/gas 2.
Heat up a cast iron casserole over medium heat. If you haven’t got an ovenproof casserole dish suited for the hob as well, do the frying in a skillet and warm up a casserole dish in the oven to transfer the ingredients into.
Pour about 2 tbsp. Of the fat rendered from the duck legs into the frying dish/skillet. Add the diced pork belly and fry for 3 minutes until seared and lightly browned. Remove to a plate (or the casserole waiting in the oven) with a slotted spoon. Add the pancetta or bacon, fry and remove when browned. Add the onion, carrots, celery and whole garlic cloves to the pan and sweat for 5 minutes until softened.
Turn up the heat and pour in the wine. Let it bubble up, then return all the meat into the dish (or pour and scrape the frying pan content into the oven casserole if using two dishes). Add the tomato purée, half the chopped parsley, the bunch of thyme tied with a piece of string, about 1 tsp of salt and ½ tsp black pepper. Add the beans with about 700ml of water – enough to cover them in the casserole. Bring it to the boil.
Pull the skin off the duck legs with a small knife; it won’t come off quite so easily as the meat is not cooked much. Discard the skin. Keep the fat in the dish. When the cassoulet is simmering, stick the legs in and bury them under the beans. Cover the dish with a lid and place in the oven for 2 hours.
Whiz the bread in a blender or food processor to coarse breadcrumbs.
Remove the dish from the oven and fish out the legs. Pull the meat off the bone – it will now be very tender – and return to the pan. Check for seasoning. Top up with water if it’s cooked off too much (beans are catching on the bottom) and bake uncovered for another hour. Check halfway through if the sauce is thickening to your liking. If too watery, sprinkle some of the breadcrumbs over the surface and return to the oven.
Heat up 2 tbsp of the duck fat in a small skillet (the rest can now go), add the breadcrumbs and the garlic and fry until pale golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Stir in some chopped parsley and season well with salt and pepper.
Let the cassoulet stand for 15 minutes before serving in bowls, sprinkled with the breadcrumbs. If preparing it in advance, load ovenproof individual dishes with cooked cassoulet and bake in the oven until piping hot, sprinkling over the breadcrumbs for the last few minutes of baking.
Serve with lightly dressed green salad and crusty bread.