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3 questions re: cassoulet...

  • c

So I made cassoulet for the first time the other night using a recipe from my Balthazar cookbook. Pretty much followed the recipe; however, I used bacon instead of pork belly and Northern white beans instead of the preferred Tarbais beans. Overall, I was really happy w/ the results...great winter dish...tasted exponentially better w/ each day. Still have 3 frozen duck confit legs so will make again soon and want to perfect this dish. My questions:

1) Tomato: Some recipes call for a bit of tomato paste, even diced tomatoes (eg, Balthazar) whereas other recipes do not (eg, Les Halles). I actually liked it w/ the paste and diced tomatoes, but was wondering if the tomato might overpower the beans. Next time, thinking of putting in the paste but not diced tomatoes and compensating by adding more broth. Thoughts, opinions?

2) Tarbais beans: I wanted to use these beans, but vetoed that idea when I saw them at a French import warehouse near SF for about $120/5 kilos (ouch!). Bought Northern beans instead at around $1.50/lb. and they were quite good. While I probably won't ever buy the Tarbais, was curious if anyone has tried them and what the dif. might be?

3) Wine: What wine pairs well w/ cassoulet? Had a German riesling hanging around the house, so thought it would probably go ok. Was pleasantly surprised at how well it complemented the dish, but was wondering what others favor?

Thanks for helping me to perfect this heavenly stew!

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  1. Cassoulet is my husband's favorite dish. I wish I could say that we've made it at home nearly as often as we have eaten it in a restaurant.

    I need more cookbooks. Not one of the recipes I found made any mention of Tarbais beans.

    In fact, I had never heard of Tarbais beans until your post. A Google search found a mention of Tarbais beans in Mexico at the time of Christopher Columbus. Perhaps you can find that bean in a Mexican grocery but with a different name? The reasons for the high price of the French bean are that they are hand picked and are in short supply.

    I've used cannelini, Great Northern and Flageolet. I prefer cannelini. Paula Wolfert prefers French lingots or Great Northern in "The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen" and fava beans in "The Cooking of South-West France".

    You have piqued my interest in finding Tarbais beans as one of its attractions is that it does not fall apart when reheated.

    I can't wait for people to weigh-in on this thread.

    - kim

    9 Replies
    1. re: Kim D

      Yes, never heard of Tarbais beans til I saw them mentioned in my Balthazar book. Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook also suggests Tarbais. Balthazar says that the Tarbais is the "soul of the dish," which def. makes me wonder if they are worth acquiring. Supposed to be very creamy but hold their shape.

      When I asked for them at the Made in France store near SF, the French clerk first had a surprised look on his face (as if this wasn't a common request) and then immediately warned me to not faint before he revealed the $125/5 kgs. pricetag. He told me that the avg. person in France doesn't use Tarbais for cassoulet, although he didn't suggest an alternative. I like flageolets w/ lamb and red meat, but don't think I'd like them as much as the Great Northern in cassoulet.

      Do you have any opinions on the tomato vs. no tomato or wine pairing issue? THANKS!

      1. re: Carb Lover

        My husband is in charge of wine in our house. As he's currently off fishing, I can't ask him. The suggestion from Tim Gaiser in Fine Cooking December 2001/January 2002 is to "go for a hearty red with plenty of personality, dark fruit flavors, and earthy, spicy notes." A Chateauneuf-du-Pape style blend. Or a lush Grenache blend.

        One recipe called for shmushing some beans against the side of the pot to make the stew thicker. I like that tip and wonder if Tarbais would shmush as nicely as cannelini.

        As for tomato, I like tomato in this dish. I never considered not using them. I don't think they overpower at all.

        The best cassoulet I've had in The States has been in San Francisco. I can't for the life of me remember the name of the restaurant but for some reason the word Circus comes to mind. If I lived in San Francisco that's where I'd be headed.

        The hardest part of making cassoulet in Chicago has been finding the right sausage. In London, I have my choice of awesome sausages to choose from.

        BTW, there's a thread on egullet about Cassoulet ("Egullet Recipe Cookoff") and Paula Wolfert has been contributing. Perhaps you would find that thread interesting...

        - kim

        1. re: Kim D

          Thanks for the egullet pointer...will def. check it out. A poster on the SF board said that he has made cassoulet numerous times and trusts in Wolfert's recipe the most. Didn't have a chance to get my hands on it, so stuck w/ what I did have.

          The more I think about it, the more I realize how each component of this dish can be a topic for debate. As far as wine, a French red does seem like the natural choice; although I was pleasantly surprised at how well my Riesling paired w/ it, albeit it was probably a bit too sweet for the dish.

          More questions:

          1) What kind of sausage do you favor? I used a garlic sausage made at my local market. Good but I think I could do better. It needed more fat IMO.

          2) Do you make your own duck confit? If not, what is your source?

          3) Do you use pork belly or bacon? Bacon was easier for me to acquire. I rinsed, dried, and then dry-marinated it w/ a few herbs, garlic, and whole peppercorns.

          BTW, let me know if you come up with the name of that place in SF since I live just over an hour away from the city. I'm getting more excited thinking about perfecting my own cassoulet though...

          1. re: Carb Lover

            I think kim D might be remembering the best caussoulet in SF at "Chapeau!" I highly recommend treking to the city for it because not only is it scrumtuous, but Phillipe, the proprieter, will tell you in detail how he makes it. He will also kiss both your cheeks on the way out if you are a lady.

            1. re: breego

              That can't be the right place. No one kissed me!

              Um, maybe Phillipe wasn't there that day.

              - kim

            2. re: Carb Lover

              1. Garlic sausage made at Paulina Market. Some day I'll find a good recipe and make my own.

              2. I've purchased duck confit and I've made it. I prefer making it. There's a thread on Duck Confit (with plenty of pictures) on eGullet as well. Paula Wolfert has a recipe for "Quick Duck and Pork Confit" that I've been meaning to try. Not sure about the quick part. I love any food that takes hours and hours to cook. The slower the better.

              3. I use pancetta. And a ham hock (not smoked).

              - kim

              1. re: Carb Lover

                I've been trying to find the best sausage choice as well, there is a place here in town that makes "gourmet" sausages but I find I have the same problem as you, not enough fat in them. The farmers market has a few sausages I've tried out and I can tell you my findings so far: chicken and apple is good on a bun, bad in cassoulet, I'm not a fan of the italian sweet sausage either. Any sausage where the guy at the market said, "this would be excellent if you are making bangers and mach" usually turns out well. I'm going to start asking for that, since most people give me a blank stare when I say I'm looking for sausage for my cassoulet. I can't remember, what is Cumberland Sausage again? I'd like to try some of that if I can get ahold of it here.

                I use a combo of boneless pork shoulder cut into cubes (usually you can get this at the grocery store already cubed, at Safeway it says pork cubes for sweet and sour pork) and bacon. My favourite recipe involves cooking the beans for an hour with an onion, a carrot and big ol' hunk of bacon, which you then cube.

                I don't make my own duck confit (refer to my post about my kitchen being teeny-tiny) I just buy it at the grocery store. I've never thought to make it myself before. DO you make it yourself? If so, how much effort/time does it take?

                Ok, for red wines -- I'm no expert, mind you, so if I sound (read) like a dork, you've been warned! I've had the McWilliam's Hanwood Estate Syrah, it is $18 CDN, so reasonably priced, mostly enjoyed the slightly spicy/hint of cedar-oak with the cassoulet, easy to drink. I've also tried Cedar Creek's 2001 Pinot Noir $24CDN (from Canada) also spicy - nutmeg-y to be exact and delicious (nutmeg-y, BTW, is a very technical term)! The third one I tried and quite liked was a Gamay Noir (also from Canada, Grey Monk -- can you get that in the US? AMAZING winery) and was peppery and spicy. Thought the combo was quite good. Too bad you can't get that cheap french table wine here that tastes so good when you are in France and only costs like 2 Euros.

                Hmm...Wine pairings for cassoulet might be a good question for ChicagoMike, he seems to make really good suggestions.

                1. re: bluespoon

                  I can empathise. My kitchen in London is much smaller than my kitchen in Chicago. So, everything I cook there is on a much smaller scale. That being said, I would still make duck confit there as it doesn't take much room.

                  All you have to do is get an even number duck legs with thighs. The effort is minimal. The elapsed time from start to finish is considerable. At least the way I make it.

                  Take a bay leaf, a garlic clove or two, some fresh thyme, some peppercorns and kosher salt. Put those ingredients on top of one set of legs and thighs and cover with a second set. Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight. The next day, preheat your oven to 200 degrees F. Remove and reserve all those ingredients. Wash the salt from the duck and pat it dry. Put all of the above in a casserole and cover with duck fat. If you don't have enough duck fat, make up the difference with olive oil. Cook in the oven for 10 hours or more! The house will smell great and you won't be able to wait for it to be ready. Carefully remove the duck from the fat, strain the fat and use it for roasted potatoes or in place of olive oil or ...

                  That recipe works if you want duck confit just for itself. For cassoulet, I know you should cook it at a higher temperature and for a shorter time. I didn't do this the last time and the flavor of the confit was a bit lost in the final product. I really like the slow cooking method though and next time I might just keep some of that slow cooked confit and serve it on the side.

                  The last time I was in London, I picked up Joanne Glynn's "Slow Cooking" book and made "Italian-style spicy sausage and bean casserole". It calls for 6 large country pork sausages. When I asked the butcher what he would suggest, he suggested Cumberland sausage. They were great. More of a texture thing than a flavor thing as the flavor was mild but, um, flavorful. It was the texture I liked the best. The texture was firm meaning you couldn't discern any bits or pieces of anything and it tasted pure and natural. No filler. Wish I could describe that better and I wish even more that I could find as good a sausage in Chicago!

                  - kim

                  1. re: Kim D

                    Thank you both for sharing your experiences. Def. will look into Cumberland sausages; I'm pretty sure I can find it here in Santa Cruz, CA. My local market actually carries some red French table wine for as low as $5 w/ those distinct characteristics that seem to only come from French soil and barrels. Maybe I'll try one of those...

                    Once I build up some more confidence w/ cassoulet, I'm going to try to make my own confit. The Les Halles cookbook has instructions which seem pretty doable, and I'm certain it will taste better than the pre-cooked frozen ones I purchased from Le Village. Shredded duck confit can also be used in ravioli which sounds fabulous.

                    Bourdain's book has a nice list of suppliers in the back. Can't list them all here, but a few that people may not have heard of before:

                    www.bavariasausage.com (Madison, WI
                    )www.fossilfarms.com (Oakland, NJ; warehouse open to public
                    )www.ottomanelli.com (NY, NY
                    )www.levillage.com (Brisbane, CA)

        2. Shoot! I meant to bring in my favourite recipe for Cassoulet and scan it and email it to you. It uses some tomato, but no tomato paste. I didn't like any of the recipes I've tried that use tomato paste, I find the paste too overpowering.

          Anyway, I've asked my french friends and they say no point in using expensive beans, but I'm interested in KimD's point about them not falling apart when reheated. Carblover, I vote you to be the guinea pig and try it out and let us know how it goes!!

          I've been experimenting with different meat combinations, chicken instead of duck, different kind of sausages (always with bacon of course) and also different fat (cooking extra bacon and using bacon fat instead of duck fat - freezing extra bacon for later). My discovery is it is pretty much delicious no matter what, but the wine I choose depends on what meat I'm putting in. I've been leaning towards shiraz (syrah - whatever) but am surprised at your choice of riesling, will try that as well. I think the general concensus is anything but Bordeaux. Have been starting the meal with nothing more then a bowl of olives. Very yummy!

          2 Replies
          1. re: bluespoon

            Thanks for thinking of sending me your recipe. If you do have time later (no rush), my email is tdoan46@yahoo.com

            Appreciate you nominating me to be the Tarbais tester, but my hubby would probably freak if I spent that much on beans. Not giving up though; will try to find out more about this elusive bean and find a cheaper source!

            Great to hear about all your experimenting w/ this dish. See my last post to KimD below for a few more questions that I have.

            Will consider Syrah next time. What particular vintner do you favor? I personally liked the Riesling (plus it was the only thing I had on hand), but think there is probably a better match out there, esp. since I generally prefer reds.

            1. re: bluespoon

              Did a bit of searching on Tarbais suppliers using references provided in Les Halles book. D'Artagnan had the lowest price at around $8/lb. Had problems w/ linking, so go to their website at dartagnan.com

              Not horrible price, but not sure if it's worth it. If anyone finds a better mail order deal, then please let me know. Thanks.

            2. Here's my second hand information: I posed your questions to my brother who's spent the year perfecting his cassoulet technique. He doesn't think it matters much whether you use diced tomatoes or paste; it's all in how you want the finished product to look---more or less rustique. He's never tried Tarbais beans and doesn't feel compelled at those prices (he's not normally one to skimp on a recipe because he can do it cheaper another way, he just doesn't anticipate that the return would be worth it). And finally, depending, again, on how rustic your final product is, he serves wines from Rhones to Burgundys; more earthy with more rustic.

              He's been making batches of duck confit after finding a local purveyor who charges him $2.50/pound for duck legs. They freeze well and he says the end product is much better than store-bought. His other "tip" is the addition of the pig foot to get a good gel (a la James Peterson).

              4 Replies
              1. re: Christine

                Christine, see if you can worm a perfected cassoulet recipe out of your brother. I'm just thinking, if he did all the leg work already...

                1. re: bluespoon

                  I think my brother considers himself to be in a process rather than have a "perfected" end, and he's a good-enough cook (an excellent cook, really) to want to vary things every time just for the interest it gives him.

                  I will tell you that he considers James Peterson's "Glorious French Food" to be his favorite in the bistro-food category (he likes it so much he gifted one to me last week), and I think he's taken a lot from the cassoulet recipe in there. He doesn't think Thomas Keller's new book has nearly as much merit. But, it's all about which style you prefer.

                2. re: Christine

                  Wow, thanks for going to the trouble of asking your bro. Seems like a number of us are on the quest to achieving our idea of cassoulet perfection. Balthazar and Les Halles books both have recipes for confit, so I look forward to making it myself one day. Sounds like your bro has found a great, inexpensive source for fresh duck legs. Wonder what they go for in my area of NoCal...

                  Pig's foot sounds like a great addition. Balthazar book says their restaurant version contains pig's knuckles and pork confit (YUM!!) but they omitted it in the book version.

                  1. re: Carb Lover

                    The duck leg source is a restaurant supplier, and we've found that many will sell to consumers as long as you buy the product the way it is packaged (as in, whatever the smallest packaged quantity is). Sometimes you have to get a group together to make it worthwhile.

                    I have to believe that duck legs are surplus to duck breasts all over and you should be able to find a willing seller in NoCal with just a little help from the Yahoo yellowpages.

                    Now, if you ask me, the bigger problem is collecting enough duck fat. Best of luck!

                3. My own take(s) on your questions are:

                  There is no perfect version. The best version any french person ever had was made by grand-mere (and don't ask on which side of the family).

                  One hint that no one else mentioned is that there is usually some leftovers that can be frozen and used as a starter for the next batch. By now my quart-plus of starter must have components from a half dozen batches, and as many types of small white bean. Fortunately, tomatoes are in season when San Fran is at it's coldest (well it is cold now too). So a summer batch gets fresh, and a winter batch gets concentrate. Both are, no doubt, in the 'starter'.

                  As to wine, I like a spicy cassoulet (whole black peppercorns) so a french syrah works best. Rhone, Crozes-Hermitage (a region in the north Rhone), or Languedoc work better than cali syrah and are less expensive.

                  Some of your follow-up comments were about making Duck Confit, which I do, but I don't recall any questions. It does make the process into a full week deal, though confit should really be made weeks in advance of consumption. And stock freezes well.

                  Oh, and since I don't eat pig, there is no pig in the sauce or sausage.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: SteveT

                    I've never had "leftovers" but I like the idea of a starter! Sometimes I make cassoulet just for me and my husband and it takes us three days to finish it off. We enjoy it until the end but I think we would be happier if I skipped the third day and froze it instead. That way we would know that we had another cassoulet in our future.

                    Many thanks for that idea.

                    - kim

                    1. re: SteveT

                      Wow, the starter tip is intriguing...I love a dish like this that has so many angles and approaches. I can see how a starter aids in bread or yogurt-making, but cassoulet is not as clear for me. NEVER have heard of that before. Do you remember your source for using a starter, and have you found that it makes a significant difference?

                      You mentioned whole black peppercorns. Assume that you add that at the beginning so it stews w/ everything; how much do you add? I would welcome a little more spice in my version...

                      1. re: Carb Lover

                        I don't know the recipe you use, but I the way I make it there are four components: lamb stew, chicken sausage, duck confit, beans. The starter goes into the beans. Since beans normally cook in lots of liquid, this helps thicken things up. And I can skip the bread crumb, bake part that doesn't really work unless one cooks individual servings.

                        Source? Um, I'm not a big recipe follower, but I think it is well followed.

                        Whoe black peppercorns are used in the white bean cooking, and not removed. They soften so that they're chewable, and don't break apart, so they can be avoided. But they flavor the dish, and can add a jolt whenever the eater wants one. I might use 20 in a six person serving (2 ppl x 3 nights).

                      2. re: SteveT

                        I agree with SteveT. Cassoulet may be a classic French dish, but it is a home-cooking, country, comfort-food dish so it's not going to have a definitive classic version. It is a bit like chili or barbecue -- some people think that tomato in chili is heresy -- or bean, or a certain kind of bean, or ground beef, or cubed beef, etc, or barbecue is only pulled pork with vinegar sauce, or brisket, or something else yadda yadda yadda. Cassoulet is a bit like that.

                        I've had cassoulet in France with several different types of white beans. I've had it with and without duck, if you can believe it. I've had it with goose sausage and with pork sausage and many other kinds of meat involved. I've had it with tomatoes fresh, concentrated, and canned.

                        Do what you love with cassoulet, and don't worry about trying to keep to any set idea of a standard.
                        Go with a good recipe (Balthazar is a good start) and start making it the way that tastes best to you.

                        I have an affinity for Julia Child's cassoulet, but that is probably because it was the first one I made and ate.

                        Let us know when you make it again, and if you made any changes.