Some foods nourish. Apples, turkey burgers, Sweetgreen salads with light to medium dressing — many of us have agreed to call these things healthy. They feed our bodies and our minds. They sustain us.
Then you have your fried chickens of the world. Your queso dips and your corndogs. Say what you will about their ratio of nutrients to calories — comfort food is good, and not just because of the way it tastes. In moderation, it feeds that crucial part of the self we call the soul.
Reigning over this category of caloric flavor bombs is cassoulet, a hearty 14th-century invention Sam Sifton describes as a “culinary jigsaw puzzle” for its lengthy list of ingredients and cook time. Those already familiar with the hearty stew know: Comprised primarily of heavy meats (ham, bacon, duck confit) and white beans, it takes hours to cook — but days to cook well.
“Finding enough time to prepare it will always be your biggest challenge,” writes acclaimed Brooklyn chef Andrew Tarlow (Diner, Marlow & Sons) in his new cookbook, Dinner at the Long Table. “Keep in mind that cassoulet is a very rich dish, so smaller portions per person will do.”
Like many things that are difficult but also delicious, the justification for cassoulet verges on the romantic, and shouldn’t occur daily. But sometimes it’s okay to crave meals that satisfy, rather than just sustain. Especially when it’s cold out.
1 1/2 pounds boneless pork shoulder
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 pounds dried Tarbais beans or cannellini beans
1 bunch sage
1 head garlic, halved lengthwise, unpeeled, plus 4 peeled cloves
1/3 cup duck fat
1 pound thick-cut bacon
1 (1 1/2-pound) ham hock
4 confit duck legs (recipe here)
2 medium onions, chopped
3 small carrots, diced
2 ribs celery, diced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 quarts unsalted chicken stock
2 sprigs parsley
1 small bunch thyme
2 bay leaves
1 (6-inch) square uncured pork skin
1 stale baguette
1 small bunch parsley, leaves chopped
3 leaves fresh sage, minced
3 sprigs oregano, leaves chopped
1. Two days before you plan to serve the cassoulet, season the pork shoulder with salt and pepper and soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. The next day, drain, rinse and place the beans in a large or medium pot with plenty of cold water, the sage, and the halved garlic. Bring to a bare simmer and cook for one hour. Cut the heat, add a handful of salt, and let the beans sit on the stove top while you proceed with the recipe.
2. Melt the duck fat in a pan over low heat and slowly brown the bacon on both sides until crisp. Transfer the bacon to a platter. Brown the ham hock on all sides in the duck fat and transfer to the platter with the bacon. Do the same with your pork shoulder. Slowly warm the confit duck legs in the fat and transfer to the platter. Let the legs cool slightly, then pick the meat and discard the skin and bones. Cut the pork shoulder into large cubes, with a good amount of fat left intact.
3. In an earthenware or heavy-bottomed pot, add the onions, carrots, celery and duck fat from your pan, season with salt and pepper, and sauté until soft and golden. Add the tomato paste, mashing it with a spoon. Add the chicken stock and bring to a simmer. With kitchen twine, tie the parsley, thyme, and bay leaves together and submerge the herbs in the stock. Roll and tie the pork skin with twine and add to the stock. Add the beans and simmer for an hour, then cut the heat. Submerge the ham hock, pulled duck meat, pork shoulder and bacon into the pot of beans. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
4. The day you’ll serve the cassoulet, preheat the oven to 325°F. Remove the herbs and pork skin from the pot and discard. Retrieve the garlic head from the pot and squeeze the softened cloves out of their papery skins and stir into the cassoulet. On a cutting board, mash the 4 peeled garlic cloves to a paste with a pinch of salt — the slow-cooked garlic will be nice and sweet, while the fresh garlic provides punch — and stir the garlic paste into the cassoulet. Bring the cassoulet to a simmer, then slide it into the oven and bake for an hour.
5. Meanwhile, trim the crust from the baguette. Cut into cubes, spread out on a baking sheet, and bake until dry to the touch. Pulse the dried bread in a food processor until large crumbs form. Toss with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Return to the baking sheet and bake until crisp and golden, about 10 minutes. Toss the bread crumbs with the parsley, sage and oregano. Sprinkle the bread crumbs over the top of the cassoulet and bake for 30 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let the cassoulet sit on the counter for 10 minutes while you test your resolve.
The recipe above appears in Dinner at the Long Table, by Andrew Tarlow and Anna Dunn, published by Ten Speed Press. Buy Now: $40