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This is the recipe I have been working on for nearly 10 years for cooking cassoulet, a baked bean dish from the south-west of France. See the discussion for some of the background, in particular the difficulty of finding typical ingredients. This recipe makes do with ingredients that you can (sometimes) find in provincial Victoria, Australia.

Ingredients

These ingredients are sufficient for a casserole of 3 litres, which happens to be what I use. Adjust accordingly.

quantity       ingredient       step
500 g       dried white beans
300 g       meat, preferably lamb and pork, in single pieces      
150 g       fat, preferably duck, otherwise lamb or pork (lard)      
800 g       water      
30 g       salt (see discussion at bottom)      
50 g       (optional) couennes (pork skin)      
150 g       double-smoked sausage      
400 g       tinned tomatoes      
40 g       tomato paste      
10 g       garlic      
50 g       bread crumbs      

There's a lot of choice in the meat. In previous versions of this recipe, for step 2 I stipulated 200 g lamb, from leg, and 125 g pork, from forequarter. But many recipes use duck, notably confit de canard, as well. I haven't seen any asking for beef. The sausage in step 6 is also variable, and at a pinch could be omitted or replaced by cold-smoked ham (but not Australian hot-smoked ham in slices). The reason for specifying it separately is simply that it needs less cooking. In principle the total weight of meat and sausage should be about 450 g.

The beans should be “fresh” (i.e. from the last harvest). Madame Saint-Ange and Bocuse are both in agreement that old beans detract greatly from the quality of the dish. They will split, and the interior will remain granular.

Traditional recipes state that you should cook the beans for up to three hours. In my experience this would lead to their complete disintegration; they should be cooked but firm. Depending on the beans, this can happen after as little as one hour. It's important to keep an eye on them and remove them when they're cooked.

I've had difficulty with too much liquid being left over at the end. I've reduced the quantity of water in this version of the recipe, but it may require even less. Possibly the water from the tinned tomatoes should be added at the beginning (step 3).

Preparation

Over the years I've discovered that my timing wasn't optimal. I used to have a 6½ hour schedule, but this proved to be inaccurate. I started working on this version in February 2006.

There are four steps in the cooking: soften the beans and prepare the meat, cook the individual ingredients, arrange the cassoulet, and cook it. Between each step there can be an arbitrarily long gap.

    • These steps can proceed in parallel. They should start at least 5 hours before serving.

    • Soak the beans: either overnight in cold water, or put them into boiling water, bring back to the boil for a minute or so, then turn off the flame and leave to soak for an hour, maybe two. Drain.

    • Fry the whole meat in some of the fat until brown. Let it cool.

    • Steam the couennes for an hour, then cut into small strips.

    • This step should start at least 3 hours before serving, preferably earlier.

    • Bring the water to the boil and add beans, meat and 80 g duck fat. Bring back to the boil and simmer at the lowest possible heat for 30 minutes. The water should be sufficient to just cover the beans. Top up if the level drops below the level of the beans. Don't add any salt (or any salty meat) yet, since it tends to harden the beans.

    • After 30 minutes, add the salt, the whole sausage, tomatoes with juice and tomato paste and stir. Check the beans, which should still need further cooking.

    • After another 30 minutes, check the beans. They should be cooked but not disintegrating. When they're done, turn off the heat. Drain the pot, keeping the broth for later, and separate beans and meat. I've found that I tend to have too much liquid, so I reduce it by about ⅓.

  1. This step should start at least 1:20 hours before serving.

    Crush the garlic into the broth and mix. Cut meat into roughly 5 mm slices (Bocuse recommends 3 mm). The meat will be soft and fibrous, so there's a lot of leeway here.


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    Place a layer of beans at the bottom of a casserole, cover with sausage slices, followed by another layer of beans, the meat and couennes, and a final layer of beans:


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    Pour in the reserved broth to cover the beans, cover the top with breadcrumbs, then pour the remaining duck fat over the top:


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  2. 1 hour before serving: Bake in the oven until the surface is browned. This usually requires some help from the grill; the breadcrumbs soak in the broth and don't brown easily. I've recently had success with baking in a temperature-controlled toaster oven. In my newest oven I've tried fan-forced with additional top element at round 200°.


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How much salt?

The amount of salt needed depends on the meat. If there's no salt in the meat and sausage, 40 g seems right. With salted sausage and ham, 30 g is safer.


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