Three ways to make rustic French dish cassoulet

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What: M.F. K. Inspired Cassoulet Dinner by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 1

Where: The General’s Daughter, 400 West Spain St., Sonoma

Cost: $35, includes artisan cheese selection, cassoulet, salad, bread and brownies. Guests are welcome to bring a bottle of wine for sharing.

To reserve: theepicureanconnection.com

Cassoulet — a French peasant dish named after the clay cassole pot in which it is baked — has inspired heated debate, dreams of perfection and endless variations on the simple theme of pork and beans.

Although the dish has made occasional forays onto haute cuisine menus, cassoulet at its heart is a rustic dish that marries simple ingredients with an array of techniques.

“Cassoulet is a labor of love,” said Peter Janiak, chef at Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. “It should not or cannot be rushed into. At its heart it is a rustic bean and meat stew. However, its complex use of multiple cooking techniques solidifies its spot at the apex of French home cooking.”

For her breakthrough 1983 tome, “The Cooking of Southwest France,” Paula Wolfert of Sonoma searched every nook and cranny of the Langueduc region — from the Dordogne and Garonne rivers south to Gascony and the Basque country — for the best-tasting cassoulet.

“Like bouillabaisse in Marseille, paella in Spain, chili in Texas, it is a dish for which there are innumerable recipes and about which discussions quickly turn fierce,” she wrote. She settled upon two of her favorite recipes: a Fava Bean Cassoulet made by Chef Andre Daguin, a legend credited with putting Gascony on the map; and a Cassoulet in the Style of Toulouse, made by a woman who learned to make cassoulet at her grandmother’s knee.

Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Foods in Napa believes the dish probably originated as a way to use up leftovers, just like ribollito, chilaquiles and many of the world’s other comfort dishes.

At a recent Rancho Gordo cassoulet workshop, the chefs from The Fatted Calf of Napa created an Italian, American and French version of the dish. You could also do a Mexican version, he said, using Mexican sausages and oregano instead of thyme.

Once you know the cassoulet rules, you can always bend them. But in order to stay true to the one-pot wonder, you really need to serve it around a big table filled with friends.

“This is the perfect dish on a weekend to come home to and have a garlicky salad and a big pot of love and some great wine,” Sando said. “It’s a home dish, and the house smells so great.”

Sando, who grows and sells the big, white Tarbais beans traditionally used in cassoulet, recently published a cookbook dedicated to the dish: “Cassoulet: A French Obsession,” by Kate Hill, a longtime “bean person” who attempts to demystify the dish.

“Kate pulls it apart and helps you deconstruct it so you know where to fudge and where not to,” he said. “People think it’s going to take three days.”

Sando sourced his West Coast seed stock from the classic French Tarbais bean of France but decided to call it a “Cassoulet Bean” out of respect for the French farmers who grow the creamy bean in their own terroir. Tarbais, however, is not indigenous to Europe

“We believe the bean probably came from Oaxaca, went to Europe (in the 16th century) and was bred there,” Sando said. “Before that, they were probably using dried favas (in cassoulet.)”

The hearty cassoulet casserole tends to incorporates all kinds of pork products, from pork fat and skin to sausages and smoked pork shoulder. It’s hearty meats make it the perfect winter dish to share after a day or skiing or snowshoeing.

What: M.F. K. Inspired Cassoulet Dinner by Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection

When: 6 to 8 p.m. Feb. 1

Where: The General’s Daughter, 400 West Spain St., Sonoma

Cost: $35, includes artisan cheese selection, cassoulet, salad, bread and brownies. Guests are welcome to bring a bottle of wine for sharing.

To reserve: theepicureanconnection.com

___

Cassoulet with Italian accent

In the winter, Janiak creates an Italian version of cassoulet to serve on his Chef’sTable tasting menu, which pairs four wines with four dishes. His twist on cassoulet is made with a cannellini bean ragout and lots of pork, then finished with garlicky breadcrumbs.

The cannellini beans have a nice, creamy texture when they cook,” he said. “We make housemade fennel sausage — that’s important to us here — and we fire up the smoker and make some pork shoulder hams … we also use some pancetta that’s cured in our salumi room.”

The Seghesio bean dish lands somewhere between a homemade and a haute cuisine cassoulet.

“We do cook a lot of the ingredients separately, and we take advantage of what we do best,” Janiak said. “Almost every kitchen in France has its own version. The villages and communes all do different things. Some mix in the duck, and some have mutton as well.”

To improve his wine pairing, Janiak adds some Dijon mustard to the vegetables before deglazing them with wine.

“We needed a little acid in there,” he said. “And it makes it taste lighter on the palate.”

___

Cassoulet inspired by M.F.K.

In the town of Sonoma, chef Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection has been making cassoulet for the past 30 years, ever since she worked as a teenager for the venerable food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

“She would have me prep vegetables and do chores,” Davis said. ”I had never cooked with wild game or meats, and it was fascinating to me.”

Now, cassoulet has become a tradition for Davis and her Sonoma clients. Every winter, she puts on cassoulet parties for folks such as Jeff Bundschu, president of Gundlach Bundschu, who provides wild duck that he hunts himself.

“That creates a synergy with the guests, so I’m actually cooking with them, not for them,” she said. “I usually bring a collection of writings from M.F.K. … and I always put the recipe on the table for people to take home.”

Her cassoulet, like M.F.K.’s, is hearty and meaty, flavored with ham hocks, pork shoulder, duck fat, duck and pork prosciutto. It’s topped with duck confit and pork sausages.

Davis likes to make dish over the course of three days, roasting the ham hocks and pork shoulders on the first day while soaking the beans and prepping the vegetables.

On the second day, she adds the vegetables to the meat, then simmers the beans in stock for 30 minutes before pouring it all into a cassoulet pan and roasting it the oven. She also roasts off the duck confit legs and pork sausages.

On the third day, she reheats the cassoulet in the oven, arranges the duck legs and sausages on top, then roasts it one more time until the duck is crispy, adding the crunchy bread crumbs at the very end.

“Everybody wants the crispiness on top,” she said. “That’s the best part.”

Cassoulet chefs agree that the secret to great cassoulet is sourcing quality ingredients, starting with the beans and continuing on to the meats, which can be found at high-end grocery stores or custom butchers.

“I like going to Bud’s Custom Meats in Penngrove to Willie Bird in Sebastopol,” she said. “To lighten it up, I would gladly serve turkey sausage.”

According to Sando, it’s important to let the cassoulet cool down after it gets out of the oven, for 45 minutes or so while you make a salad. And don’t be afraid to make a little extra.

“It freezes beautifully,” Davis said. “I suggest making it without the duck confit … then adding it later, after it’s thawed. That way it has a fresh flavor on top.”

In her “Cassoulet” cookbook, Hill includes a recipe for a Faux Cassoulet, which takes a little over two hours to prepare and only about five minutes of chopping. But be prepared: once you start your quest for the perfect cassoulet, there may be no turning back.

“It’s a funny little Moby Dick dish,” Sando said. “You are going to make it once, and then spend the rest of your life trying to perfect it … I can think of almost nothing better to do with your time.”

___

The following recipe is from “Cassoulet: a French Obsession” by Kate Hill. “This is what I do when I’m not up for cooking a full-blown Classic Cassoulet,” Hill writes. “I start cooking dried beans, add anything vegetable and herbal lying around, and toss in a few sausages and good bacon at the end. Eh voilà!”

Faux Cassoulet (Simple Pork & Beans)

Makes 4 servings

1 pound dried small beans (such as Navy)

1 large carrot,peeled and left whole

1 large onion, peeled and left whole

2 shallots, peeled and left whole

2 garlic cloves

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

— Handful of ham ends, plus some good bones or a hock, salted or not

1 bouquet garnie (made of several bay leaves, celery or lovage leaves, parsley stalks and fresh or dried thyme, tied together with string or placed in cheesecloth bag)

4 slices bacon, thickly sliced

— Fresh sausage (1 per person)

In a large saucepan over high heat, cover the dry beans with three times their volume of water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer. The beans will soak, soften, and cook at the same time. Once the beans have tripled in size and are no longer wrinkled, control the water level, making sure the beans remain submerged. Once the beans have finished soaking, you only need enough water to cover beans by about 2 inches.

Add the vegetables and any ham ends or bones. Cover, let come to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the beans are tender, about 45 to 50 minutes more. Taste and add salt as desired.

When the beans are tender, remove the carrot, celery, onion, garlic and ham bones. Dice the cooked vegetables and return to the pot, simmer to combine the flavors. Discard the ham bones.

When the beans are almost done cooking, fry some good thick pieces of bacon and a few sausages. Once browned, add the sausages to the pot. Serve the beans topped with the crisped bacon pieces.

___

The following recipe for a one-day or two-day cassoulet is from Peter Janiak, executive chef of Seghesio Family Vineyards.

“Our rendition takes advantage of things we love here at Seghesio,” he said. “House-ground, hand-stuffed sausages, salt-cured pork bellies, smoked pork shanks and cannellini beans give us an Italian twist that pays homage to our roots and a finished dish that is wholly Sonoma County.” The Pork shank is available from high-end grocery stores such as Oliver’s and Whole Foods.

Roasted Fennel Sausage with Cannellini Bean Ragout and Garlic Pangrattato

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 2-pound bone-in smoked pork shank

1½ cups cannellini beans, soaked overnight in cold water

1 whole carrot

2 ribs celery

½ yellow onion

1 bay leaf

5 cloves garlic

1½ cups diced pancetta

½ cup onion, finely diced

½ cup carrot, finely diced

½ cup celery, finely diced

2 tablespoons minced garlic

¼ cup Dijon mustard

3/4 cup white wine

1 teaspoon ground coriander

½ teaspoon chili flakes

2 teaspoons black pepper

2 tablespoons pure olive oil

8 fennel sausages (or sweet Italian sausages)

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1/2 cup panko

1 tablespoon butter + 1/4 cup butter, melted

1 clove garlic

— Extra Virgin Olive Oil, to garnish

Step 1: Cook beans and pork shank

Remove beans from soaking water and place in a large pan. Add pork shank, carrot, onion, celery, garlic and bay leaf.

Cover with water and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until beans are soft, about 90 minutes.

Allow to cool at room temperature and remove and discard carrot, celery, onion, garlic and bay leaf.

Remove pork shank and pick meat off the bone in bite-size pieces and reserve.

Strain beans from liquid and reserve liquid, skimming any fat off the top.

For two-day method, refrigerate all components at this stage and build cassoulet on day 2 and serve on day 2. Store beans in liquid overnight if you choose this technique.

Step 2: Cook cassoulet base

Render pancetta nad reserve crispy pancetta and 1/4 cup pancetta fat.

In a pot large enough to hold all ingredients except sausage, add pancetta fat and heat on medium high until hot.

Add carrot, onion and celery; sweat until soft and translucent.

Add minced garlic, coriander, black pepper and mustard; stir until mustard begins to stick to pan, then deglaze with white wine.

Add beans and cover with bean liquid by about 1/2 inch. Simmer until hot and then add reserved pancetta and pork shank.

Place pan in oven preheated at 300 degrees and hold until sausage is cooked and ready to serve (no longer than 30 minutes.)

Step 3: Roast sausages and make garlic pangrettato

Heat2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat until hot in a pan large enough to hold 8 sausages.

Add sausages and cook until brown on one side, then flip and add to 300-degree oven to cook until cooked through, about 15 to 20 minutes.

While sausage is in oven, make garlic pangrattato (breadcrumbws.) Melt 1 tablespoon butter in saute pan and add panko, stirring constantly over low heat until golden brown. Remove from heat, microplane one clove of garlic, and stir in to incorporate.

Step 4: Assembly

Remove beans from oven and stir in 1/4 cup butter and chopped parsley. Season to taste with salt.

Scoop bean mixture into warm bowls. Remove sausages and slice on bias and place on top of beans.

Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over the top and garnish the entire dish with the garlic pangrattato.

___

This is a three-day cassoulet recipe from Sheana Davis of The Epicurean Connection. The recipe was inspired by food writer M.F. K. Fisher, who taught Davis how to make the French dish. Duck confit legs are availalbe at Fatted Calf in Napa or online at LaBelle Farms (bellabellagourmet.com)

M.F.K.-Inspired Cassoulet

Makes 8 servings

1 pound ham hocks

1 pound boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

¼ teaspoon chile flakes

2 pounds dried Rancho Gordo Cassoulet beans, washed

8 ounces duck prosciutto, cut into strips

8 ounces pork prosicutto, chopped, cut into strips

½ cup duck fat

12 cloves garlic, unpeeled and chopped

2 cups carrots, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 cups white onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces

1 cup tomato paste

4 quarts chicken stock

For bouquet garni (tied in a cheesecloth):

6 parsley sprigs

4 small celery ribs

4 thyme sprigs

2 bay leaf

For garnish:

8 duck confit legs

olive oil

1 pound fresh, small pork sausages (links of chunks)

¼ cup fresh bread crumbs

Day One: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the ham hocks and pork shoulder cubes in a baking sheet and sprinkle with salt, pepper and chile flakes and bake in the oven for 90 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest overnight.

Place beans in a bowl, rinse and soak overnight in a bowl in the fridge.

Day Two: In a large saucepan, place the pork shoulder cubes and ham hocks and garlic with the duck fat.

Add in the two prosciuttos and sauté until crispy.

Add in garlic, carrots and onion and sauté until golden, about 5-7 minutes. Add in tomato paste, mixing together and evenly coating the meat and vegetables.

Add in chicken stock the bouquet garni and bring to a simmer. Add in beans, mix together, and bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.

Gently pour into a large cassoulet pan (clay cassole, cast-iron Le Creuset or Dutch oven.) Roast in oven for 2 hours.

Place duck confit legs and pork sausages on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast until crispy, about 25-30 minutes.

Remove from oven and allow to rest. Set in the fridge overnight.

Day Three: Remove cassoulet from the fridge, let rest 1 hour, and re-heat in oven.

Remove cassoulet from oven and arrange duck legs and sausages on top. Place back into oven and allow to roast for 30 minutes, until duck is crispy.

Sprinkle with crumbs and either bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes until golden on top or brulée with a handheld butane torch and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with a syrah or a cabernet franc.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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