At the moment, everyone is trying to figure out how to talk about celebrating New Year’s Eve while avoiding phrases like “these unprecedented times” or “despite the current challenges” or—my favorite—“in a safe, socially distanced way.” Because two things are simultaneously true. There was never a year whose ending should be more celebrated and acknowledged than 2020, and also, 2020 will definitely bleed into 2021 in some ways that, despite being COVID-Over-It, must needs be mentioned.
In the same way the fashions, music, and cultural touchstones of the first two years of any new decade are really just the same as the ending of the decade before, 2021 is really in many ways going to be 2020.99. I defy anyone to look at a photo of people from 1971 and distinguish it fundamentally from one in 1970, or even 1969 for that matter. Decades are identified more by the middle to the ends of themselves, culturally, so while the odometer might have ticked over, there is still a bunch of 2020 we will need to spend most if not all of 2021 shaking off.
All of which is a very long and florid way of saying that, during these unprecedented times, despite the current challenges, this year you should celebrate New Year’s in a safe, socially distanced way by making cassoulet. Boom.
Cassoulet is the easiest complicated casserole on the planet. It is not, despite what you may have heard or read, hard. Really good cassoulet is complex because it takes a long time and has a lot of ingredients. But the techniques are not difficult, and as long as they have planned ahead, anyone with some super basic kitchen competence can achieve a pretty stellar version.
A slow-cooked layered casserole of beans and many meats, cassoulet is a traditional French dish that is most often written about with deep reverence, usually by writers who insist that there is a “right” way to prepare it and “essential” ingredients that must be sourced and that anyone who doesn’t follow these strictures will be forever banned from visiting France. But even the French argue about what is the right or done thing, which are the appropriate inclusions. You can end up down a rabbit hole of “crunchy bread crumb topping” versus “natural crust formation sans crumbs,” and at the bottom, some discussion of whether rabbit can or should be included in the allowable meats.
This is not that recipe. This is the recipe that posits the following: Winter is the perfect time to make slow-cooked dishes that can take a few days. This is especially applicable in 2020, because what the heck else are we all doing?
A one-pot wonder that only requires a light salad and some crusty bread to be a complete meal is the ideal celebratory feast this season, since even the most passionate cooks I know (including myself) are experiencing culinary fatigue after ten months of preparing three meals a day in our home kitchens. None of us wants to end the year with a fussy multi-course meal. A big bowl of warm comforting stewed stuff is much more in line with what we all need right now.
It is a dish that serves a household of up to six generously, but also freezes beautifully, so if you are solo or just two, you can still make it and not feel wasteful. Instead, you’re just banking some gorgeous future meals for when the winter blahs really kick in (looking at you, February). But it also travels and reheats well, so if you are looking to do a Zoom dinner with family or friends with a drop-off meal, this is a terrific one to try. Need to serve more people? Double it and make in two casseroles or one giant pan.
Lastly, you can, if you choose, make this whole dish in essentially one day as long as you remember to soak the beans the day before, but I like to do it over several days so that it doesn’t feel like such a production, and because the dish tastes better when made ahead and reheated so that all the flavors meld. Feel free to adjust timeline to what suits you.
Once you cast off the shackles of the “done thing” and the “required ingredients” and embrace the challenge of making this dish with what you can rationally and reasonably source within your budget, you will find yourself really enjoying the process, and the end result will be delicious.
If you want to go super authentic, you cannot do better than the Cassoulet Kit from D’Artagnan. It comes in two sizes—one to serve up to six, one to serve up to twelve—and includes the magical “true” beans, all the meats, plus the demi-glace and duck fat. For less than $15 per person, you get all the key ingredients shipped right to your door, along with an easy-to-follow recipe. The recipe below is adapted from D’Artagnan’s because it just works really well. I cannot recommend their products enough: they are at the forefront of natural sustainable humane farming, and every order supports small, independent farmers, which feels extra important and good these days.
If you want to source your own ingredients, here we go…
Adapted from D’Artagnan Cassoulet Kit
- 1 lb. dried largeish white beans (Tarbais are traditional, and also hard to source and super expensive. I have used Camellia brand large limas, Rancho Gordo Cassoulet Beans, and generic cannellini beans with equal success. Please do not use canned beans in this; you really do want to take the time to cook from dried.)
- ½ lb. slab unsmoked bacon-type product (Ventreche is the French version, but pancetta will be easier to source stateside. Smoked bacon can be used deliciously, but it does create a different flavor profile. The key here is to buy the meat in a slab so that it can be cooked whole. If you can find lean salt pork, you can use that here as well.)
- 1 bouquet garnis (Take a piece of cheesecloth and place 5 sprigs of parsley, 1 sprig of fresh thyme, a bay leaf, and 10 whole black peppercorns in the middle. Then tie it up in a little bundle. If you don’t have cheesecloth, you can sub a clean cotton handkerchief or flour sack towel, or you can use a mesh infusing ball.)
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 1 small yellow or white onion, peeled and halved, or 2 large shallots, peeled and kept whole
- 3 whole cloves
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped
- 1 stalk of celery, chopped
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2½ cups demi-glace or roasted chicken stock
- 3 duck leg confit quarters, cut in half at the joint (This is when making an effort can really make a difference, especially if you like duck. Even if you don’t want to order the whole kit from D’Artagnan, you can order just the duck confit. I’ve also seen duck confit at my local Costco. If you can’t find or don’t want to order duck confit, or you don’t like duck, you can sub six bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs.)
- ½ lb. raw sausage (The Toulouse sausages in traditional cassoulet are made with raw pork and garlic. The easiest substitution would be basic bratwurst or an unsmoked Polish kielbasa. I’d avoid sweet Italian because the fennel will be a bit too strong here.)
- ½ lb. garlic sausage (This is a cooked product, as opposed the raw product above. It’s not cured, though, so it’s still soft. A basic salami would be the best substitute. I like Vienna Beef soft salami for this. Be sure that it’s in one chunk so that you can control the preparation. Do not use a hard cured sausage.)
- ½ cup fat (Duck fat is the go-to, but you can use chicken fat, goose fat, lard, or even vegetable oil. If you can get duck fat, go for it, but if not, don’t overthink it.)
- 1½ cups coarse bread crumbs
- Dijon mustard
Pick over your dried beans and discard any broken ones or sneaky stones, then give them a rinse. Put them in a large plastic or glass container or a non-reactive pot; the dried beans should only take up about a quarter of the volume. Cover with cold water by about 4 inches. Cover with a lid or clean tea towel and let them hang out at room temperature for 24 hours. Be sure to check the level of the water a few times to be sure the beans stay submerged completely as they rehydrate. Too much water is better than too little.
Drain the beans and rinse them. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add your soaked beans and the piece of whole pancetta or other slab pork. Press the pork down into the beans so that they are at the same level. Add the smashed garlic cloves, the carrot and celery, and the bouquet garni. Stick the cloves into the onion halves or shallots and toss in the pot. Cover by 3 inches with cold water and set over medium-high heat. Let the mixture come to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and let simmer for about an hour until the beans are just tender but still toothsome. Start checking them at about the half-hour mark; older beans take longer, so depending on the freshness of your beans they could be done anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. Be sure to stir them periodically and test a minimum of two beans from different parts of the pot. They should not be crunchy or raw tasting in the middle, but they should also still be firm. Remove from heat and let cool in the cooking liquid to room temperature, then remove the bouquet garni and the onion. Store overnight in the fridge in the cooking liquid.
Drain the beans. The cooking liquid is magic, so don’t dump it if you can help it! (I save it for stock and soup-making.) Place the beans in a large bowl and season well with kosher salt and black pepper to your taste. Cut the pork chunk into about a quarter-inch dice.
In a large measuring cup, whisk the tomato paste into the stock or demi-glace.
In a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, brown the raw sausages well on all sides. You don’t need to cook them through, but you want good caramelization on the outside. Cut into 2-inch chunks. Then slice the salami or garlic sausage into slices about a quarter-inch thick. If your sausage is larger than 2 inches in diameter, slice the rounds into half-moons to make it easier to serve and eat.
Heat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit with the rack in the lower middle position.
In a 4-quart enameled Dutch oven or heavy tall casserole dish (at least 3 inches deep), smear the inside with about a tablespoon of your chosen fat. Add half of your beans to the pot, making sure they are in an even layer, then sprinkle the diced pork over the top evenly. Arrange the duck (or chicken) and both styles of sausages around so that they are evenly distributed. Think of your casserole as having six quadrants. You want each section to have a piece of duck (or a chicken thigh) and a piece of each type of sausage. Drizzle about a tablespoon of your chosen fat over all the arranged meats, then cover with the rest of the beans, and drizzle an additional couple of tablespoons of the fat over the top.
Pour the stock mixture carefully and slowly over the casserole, letting it seep in so that it doesn’t slosh over the sides.
Place the casserole on a sheet pan to catch any drips or spatters, then place in the oven and bake uncovered for about 2 ½-3 hours, checking every 30 minutes to ensure that the beans don’t appear to be drying out. You are looking for the consistency of a thick stew, so if it seems that there is not enough liquid, add more stock or some of the reserved bean cooking liquid to help it along. At the 90-minute mark, rotate the pan with the dish on it to ensure even cooking. If you need to break through the crust that is developing to add liquid, that is fine and to be expected.
Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature, then cover and refrigerate overnight.
Three-and-a-half hours before you want to serve the cassoulet, remove the casserole from the fridge so it can come to room temperature. This should take about 2 hours.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you would like to have the optional bread crumb crust, toss the breadcrumbs with two tablespoons of the same fat or oil you used in the cooking, and place in an even layer on the top of the casserole. But many cassoulets just have the natural crust formed in the cooking. You do you.
Bake the casserole for about 45 minutes until it’s completely hot and bubbling all the way through and the crust is well-browned. Check for an internal temperature of about 175 degrees. If it’s, not quite hot enough, make a hole in the crust and add about half a cup of water, stock, or reserved bean liquid, and let it keep cooking until finished. If the crust seems to be browning too fast but the dish isn’t hot yet, lay a piece of pierced foil lightly over the top (don’t seal it or the casserole will steam). You can also place an oven rack above the casserole dish and put a sheet pan above it to temper the heat from the upper element.
Serve the cassoulet hot, ensuring that each diner gets a generous portion of beans and a sampling of all the meats. Pair with a light crunchy salad vinaigrette and plenty of crusty bread for dunking. Champagne is actually a terrific pairing.
Pro tip: One way to serve this, which I have stolen shamelessly from the infamous Cassoulet Nights at Chicago’s acclaimed Sunday Dinner Club from chefs Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp, is to give a generous schmear (probably half a tablespoon) of good quality French Dijon mustard (such as Maille or Amora or Grey Poupon) around one half of the side of a bowl with a large pastry brush, and then serve up the cassoulet, so that diners can drag their forkfuls thru the mustard as wanted. Genius. Highly recommended.
Pro tip two: January 1 late breakfast of leftover cassoulet reheated and topped with the egg of your choosing is a solid way to start the new year.