Colder temperatures mean it’s time for hearty soups, chili, and my personal favorite, cassoulet.
I first became aware of this very French meal in a bowl during time spent working for a French software company that took me to Montpellier, in the South of France several times. I found that most bistros had it on their menu and each put their individual touches on it like chili in America. I quickly became a big fan. The dish originated in the south of France and typically contains meat, typically pork sausages duck or duck confit and sometimes mutton, white haricot beans and tomatoes. It is traditionally topped by fried bread cubes and cracklings, which are the fried and crisped skin of the duck.
Castelnaudary is the self-proclaimed "World Capital of Cassoulet" and where the dish originated and peasant versions of the recipe can take two days or more to prepare. The traditional cooking vessel is an earthenware pot called a cassole for which the dish is named. Cassoulet is also sold in France as a commercial product in cans, again similar to our chili, and can be found in supermarkets and grocery stores across the country.
In American restaurants, the term cassoulet is often applied to any hearty bean-based casserole. The Third Corner in Encinitas has a version they call a Duck Confit white bean cassoulet whole grain mustard sauce. Firefly Grill & Wine Bar has also been known to include their version on occasional weekend tasting menus. I host a cassoulet party every year and because it’s usually attended by around 30 people, I make huge pots of it and substitute chicken thighs for duck and use Andouille sausage. It’s a modified recipe I found on Epicurious.com and is always a big hit. I’d like to share that with readers and encourage you to give it a try…and don’t be afraid to put your own spin on it and if you can make it a day ahead, or the morning of your dinner for the best flavor. This serves 8-10 so increase your recipe accordingly and make sure you have enough leftovers for yourself.
Lick the Plate Cassoulet
2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup olive oil, 3 pounds assorted fully cooked smoked sausages (I mix smoked sausage and Andouille)
4 large leeks (white and pale green parts only), thinly sliced
6 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium apple, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 1/2 teaspoons dried rubbed sage
1/2 cup brandy (I’ve used red wine)
2 14 1/2-ounce cans diced tomatoes with roasted garlic in juice
3 15-ounce cans Great Northern beans, drained, liquid reserved
1 10-ounce package frozen baby lima beans, thawed
1 cup (or more) canned chicken broth
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
20 chicken thighs (or two per person)
fresh French baguettes
Preheat oven to 350°F. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in heavy large ovenproof pot over medium heat. Cut sausages into 1/2-inch round, sauté until brown, about 25 minutes. Transfer to plate and add chicken thighs to the same pan in batches, browning them on both sides. I would suggest leaving the skin on for full flavor enhancement.
Add leeks and garlic to same pot. Sauté until beginning to soften, about 8 minutes. Mix in apple, rosemary and sage. Add brandy and simmer until almost evaporated, about 5 minutes. Mix in canned tomatoes with juices, canned beans with 1/2 cup reserved liquid, lima beans, 1 cup broth, tomato paste and cloves. Add sausages. Season with pepper.
Bring cassoulet to boil. Cover pot and transfer to preheated oven; bake 30 minutes. I’ve also kept it on the stovetop all day. Can be made up to 2 days ahead. There is enough going on in this pot that I skip the toppings and serve in bowl with one thigh per serving and a torn off piece of baguette. The chicken can tend to fall off the thigh bones but that’s fine, just alert guest to the fact that there are whole thighs in the pot.
Given the informal nature of the dish and the large group, guests sit or stand wherever around the house or outside and indulge in this hearty, flavorful, and satisfying dish. A lighter bodied red wine, pale ale or pilsner beer pairs nicely.
If you have questions on the recipe, or come across it at another North County restaurant, I’d love to hear about it.