Full Bellies, Full Hearts, Can't Lose: Keith Cooks Cassoulet!

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When I walked into Keith’s house last week, I was greeted by a merry group of K&Lers and friends, and two long tables set with rustic red-checked covers. There was a luscious, savory aroma intertwining the conversations, and a glass in each person’s hand. For tonight was Cassoulet night, night of the rich bean-and-meat stew from the Languedoc, named after the casserole pot it’s cooked in.

Legend has it that this dish was invented in Castelnaudary as a way to fortify the French soldiers against British invaders during the 100 Years’ War, but it’s hotly contested by other nearby towns who also lay claim to it. Vice magazine calls the triad of Castelnaudary, Toulouse, and Carcassone the “cassoulet trail,” comprising 64 miles between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.

I’ve made a version of Cassoulet before, but it was in a crockpot, and it was a sham. Keith’s was the real thing. Creamy white beans, pork shoulder, confit duck, ham hock, sausage, all melted together in a stew of tomato, garlic, onions, herbs, and stock. Keith started the process on Wednesday, making the chicken stock from scratch. And for the next five days, he continued to layer flavor upon flavor until these two pots were literally brimming with ambrosial umami. He graciously wrote out some notes on his process below, for those intrepid cooks who want to try to recreate this magic.

But first, I bet you’re all wondering: What did they drink??? It was mostly a smorgasbord of Rhône—north and south, with a bit of miscellany thrown in, and it was marvelous.

Keith brought out a vertical from the 2012, 2006, and 2001 vintages of “Cuvée Cristophe” at Domaine des Remizieres in Crozes-Hermitage. Across the board, these are FOOD wines, perfect for Cassoulet because they have the flavor depth but not the jamminess that Syrah can take on in warmer climes. Syrah is like Pinot in that it’s a chameleon, it shows you the conditions it was grown in. Crozes-Hermitage is right next to the storied slopes of Hermitage, but flatter, and its wines are more affordable and generally accessible younger—though this lineup showed that they do indeed age beautifully. The 2006 in particular was right in that sweet spot of perfect drinkability, but the younger and older versions also had a lot to give.

We don’t have these older vintages currently in stock, but there’s a beautiful 2016 on our shelves on right now, and you should definitely pick up a bottle or eight (especially since it’s only $15.99!). The 2016 has an ethereal texture, with bright cherry blossom and lavender notes gaining layered pepper and subtle smoked meat notes with air. It’s drinking great right as we speak (which I can vouch for because I drank it last night), though it’d be interesting to tuck a few of these away for a few years to see where they go.

We moved south to the heavy hitters, the Chateauneuf-du-Papes: 2007 Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 2006 Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and 1998 Chante Cigal Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Again, we don’t have the older vintages on our shelves, but the young bottlings are definitely worth saving. The 2016 from Chante Cigal, in fact, was one of my favorites from the Rhône tasting last week—sexy and spicy.

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We moved to Southwest France with a 2010 Château Bouscasse from Madiran. This AOC is devoted to the Tannat grape, and Bouscasse is one of the benchmarks for the region. Tannat is known for, in fact named for, its tannins, but after eight+ years, it was a pussycat. Still had structure and that characteristic tomato leaf note I expect from Madiran, but the texture had become downright silky.

Keith saved a special bottle for dessert, one he’d been hanging onto for 15 years: the 2000 Domaine des Baumard Quartes des Chaumes! It’s a dessert wine made from botrytised Chenin Blanc in the Loire and it is nectar of the gods. It’s so beautifully apple-inflected and zingy that it was it was perfect with Clarissa’s Apple Tart Tatin.

Thank you once again to Keith, the host with the most, who is so generous in making both our bellies and our hearts feel full.

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Without further ado: here are Keith’s notes on Cassoulet cookery! Kids, you should try this at home.
I soaked the beans in a lightly salted water per a Serious Eats recommendation. Then cooked the beans with split pig trotters (sweet, sweet gelatin and porky richness) and chunks of Guanciale (any salty pork here will do), a whole onion (split), two carrots (rough chop), whole head of garlic, split. Cooled the beans down and reserved until ready to use. It’s important not to overcook—a little al dente is fine as they will cook longer when you assemble.

For the cassoulet—I chopped more pancetta (guanciale) and then browned for the fat and fonde. I reserved the pancetta for later use. I added Toulouse-style sausage to a pan. Set aside. Sliced the sausage into 1½–2 inch pieces.

I put duck confit in oven to warm it through to make it easier to pull apart. Shredded duck confit, reserving bones for another use (added to my freezer bone bag to make stock at a later date). Reserved the skin from the confit to use later.

In the fat, I sweated a couple of carrots, onions, and minced garlic (fear not the garlic!). I then seeded and chopped a few Roma tomatoes and added to the pot. Once the veggies gave up their juice I deglazed with a little white wine and reduce until most of the liquid evaporates. Then I added some of the beans and gave a light stir. I added some of the duck and sausage. More beans, more duck, more sausage, etc.

I put it in the oven at 350F for two hours (or so), checking periodically to break the crust  (gently pushing the brown skin that is forming under the stock, while adding any necessary liquid to keep it above the beans). I did four or five push downs (more than that and the beans really start to fall apart).  

Finally, I browned that leftover duck skin in a pan until crispy. (Eat a bunch and share with some of your early friends but keep enough around to use as a garnish, or don’t). On the side we had the lamb shoulder and the pork belly.  I sprinkled the duck bits over that.

I took bread crumbs and pureed with several cloves of chopped garlic and with the reserved pancetta until I had a nice crumble. I generously sprinkled over the cassoulet and hit with the broiler setting for about 10-15 minutes. Pull out and let sit for 10-15 minutes before serving. (It is nuclear hot and will hold its heat really well in the cassole or pot).

- Kate Soto