New Year's Cassoulet, a Crowning Acheivement

Cassoulet is a slow-cooked dish of beans and fatty meats with a rich sauce originating in southern France. There are many variations on this dish, depending on the neighborhood and the year.  The traditional cassoulet contains white beans and a variety of meats that include pork, sausage, mutton, and duck or goose confit, cooked in a casserole dish with a hearty sauce.

For our cassoulet, we decided on a mix of cannellinis and limas. My counterpart started with dry beans, letting them soak for several hours while he assembled the rest of the ingredients and prepared the meats and sauce.

Soaking beans

For our sauce, we chose the Espagnole, one of Escoffier's Mother Sauces from which all other are derived. The Espagnole sauce is a brown sauce consisting of a roux of butter and flour, along with a stock of roasted bones, some roasted vegetables, and tomato puree. My counterpart roasted the last of our Christmas lamb shoulder and some carrots, then simmered them on the stovetop to create a rich brown aspic. He added this to a basic roux, then set the bones to stocking one last time. He also added the roasted carrots and juice from a can of tomatoes and let the sauce simmer until thickened.

A roux of butter, flour, and a little roasted stock

Add a little tomato

Add a little carrot

At that point, more stock is added to the sauce and it is strained. He used a mesh colander to strain our sauce into our 8-cup Pyrex measuring cup.

The sauce is ready to be strained

Straining the sauce

Once strained, the sauce is reheated and allowed to cook down. The end result is a strong and savory brown sauce with a pronounced roasted flavor.

Reheating the strained sauce

While the Espagnole was cooking down, we turned our attention to the meat. We chose lamb, ham, mild Italian sausage, and pancetta. Gareth cut down our lamb and browned it on the stovetop in the pot that would eventually hold our cassoulet. Once the outside of the meat was browned, he transferred it to a flat skillet and browned some onion and shallot in the lamb fat. He added chunks of ham to the onions and pieces of sausage to the lamb and continued to cook everything until the sausages were cooked through.

Lamb and sausages

Ham and onions

At this point, we very nearly have all our ingredients prepped. There is just once more thing that this dish calls for - onions spiked with cloves. Gareth cut up a white onion into wedges and stuck a couple of cloves in each wedge.

Onion spiked with clove

He then layered the meats, beans, and onions. This should not be done randomly, though. Keep in mind that once assembled, this dish will be int he oven for a good six hours or so. You'll want to start with a good layer of meat at the bottom of the pot. Gareth started with the larger pieces of lamb and ham to cover the bottom. He covered that with a layer of thick-cut pancetta and then layered in the soaked beans, a couple of onion wedges, a couple of garlic cloves, and a couple of sprigs  each of fresh basil and thyme.

Building the cassoulet

A layer of pancetta

The next layer contained more of the same with a little sausage added, then pancetta, more beans, more onions, and more fresh herbs. The top layer of meat was mostly sausage to allow the juices to drip down and saturate the dish while it cooks.

Meat and beans

That final meat layer was topped with the remaining beans, and then the Espagnole sauce was gently poured over the whole thing.

Adding the Espagnole sauce

Ready for the long, slow cook

Gareth added a couple of bay leaves, and placed it in the oven to cook.

This is not a passive cooking process. It can take at least six hours and up to three days, depending on your level of commitment. Remember that the dish contains beans. As beans cook, they require liquid, so you will need to keep an eye on things, checking in on your cassoulet every so often to add more stock or water as needed.

Cassoulet, about half way through

For the last hour of baking, cover the surface of the cassoulet with breadcrumbs. Traditional recipes also call for crackling and drippings.

Ready for the home stretch

The finished product

We cooked our cassoulet for a total of six hours. It came out rich and meaty with hints of peppery spice and a subtle sweetness from the veg in the Espagnole sauce combining with the clove. This is a hearty and satisfying dish for a cold wintery day and perfect for a New Year's dinner.