My sister, who lives in France for a few months every year, and is a great cook, suggested that I read L’Appart, by David Lebovitz. The book is about the author’s trials and tribulations buying a home in Paris, after moving to France from San Francisco, California.
From Amazon: “When David Lebovitz began the project of updating his apartment in his adopted home city, he never imagined he would encounter so much inexplicable red tape while contending with perplexing work ethic and hours. Lebovitz maintains his distinctive sense of humor with the help of his partner Romain, peppering this renovation story with recipes from his Paris kitchen.”
The book, published in 2017, is a great read. It’s funny, sad, and maddening. It’s slightly reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence, but it’s way more intense. And fortunately, my sister had a fairly mild experience buying her house in France.
I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Lebovitz’s writing, and he does have a great sense of humor, which prompted me to purchase his cookbook My Paris Kitchen, published before L’Appart, in 2014.
There are many wonderful recipes in the book, but I chose to make Cassoulet. I mean, why not?! There are so many different versions of it, and everybody claims theirs the best. To quote Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony: “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages of Gascony.”
I’ve had cassoulet with my sister in Carcassone, and then while traveling with my husband and Stephane of the now retired blog “My French Heaven, in Castelnaudary, in Southern France. That town claims cassoulet as its own. (Of course.)
Honestly, I preferred Mr. Lebovitz’s Cassoulet over those I’ve had in France.
White Bean, Sausage, Duck Confit Casserole
2 pounds good-quality dried beans
2 pounds unsmoked ham hock (mine were sliced)
1 1/4 cups diced thick-cut pork belly or pancetta
2 carrots, peeled
2 onions, peeled and halved
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 bay leaves
10 sprigs thyme
4 confit duck thigh with leg attached (I could only find legs, so I used 8)
1 pound fresh pork sausage, mine was a Toulouse variety
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
3 tablespoons neutral-tasting oil or walnut oil
Rinse the beans and soak them overnight covered in cold water.
The next day, put the ham hock in a separate large pot of water, bring it just to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to a steady simmer, and cook for about 2 hours, until the meat is tender and pulls easily from the bone. Remove the ham hock from the water and set it on a plate. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, shred it into large bite-size pieces, and refrigerate it. Discard the liquid.
Drain the beans; put them in the pot you used to cook the ham hock and cover with cold water. Add the ham bones to the pot of beans along with the pork belly, carrots, onions, garlic, bay leaves, and thyme. Bring the beans just to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat so the beans are simmering gently, and cook until the beans are soft and tender, about 1 hour. As the water boils away during cooking, add more water as necessary. Taste the beans toward the end of cooking, and add up to 1 tablespoon of salt, if necessary.
While the beans are cooking, scrape any excess fat from the duck confit pieces and fry the duck in a skillet over medium heat until the pieces are golden brown and crisp on both sides, 5 to 8 minutes per side.
Transfer the duck pieces to a plate and pour off any excess fat from the pan. Prick the sausages a few times with a sharp nice, then fry the sausages in the same pan just to brown them on the outside; they don’t need to be fully cooked through. Set the sausages on the plate with the duck pieces. When cool enough to handle, cut the sausages on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces. Cut each duck thigh into three pieces; cut the drumstick off, and then use a knife to divide the thigh portion into two equal pieces, cutting it in half by holding the knife parallel to the bone.
When the beans are done, turn off the heat. Discard the bay leaves, thyme, and ham bones, and pluck out the carrots, onions, and garlic cloves. But the carrots into cubes and mix them back into the beans, along with the shredded meat from the ham hock. Purée the onion and garlic in a blender with a bit of the bean liquid until smooth. Stir the mixture back into the bean mixture, season with pepper and taste, adding more salt if desired.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F with an oven rack in the top third of the oven.
In a wide casserole that holds at least 8 quarts, assemble the cassoulet. Ladle a layer of the bean mixture and some of the liquid into the casserole. Put half of the duck pieces and half of the sausage evenly spaced oven the beans. Add another layer of beans, and then put the rest of the duck and sausage pieces on top. Add the remaining beans and enough of the liquid so that the beans are barely floating in the liquid. (Refrigerate any extra bean liquid, as you may need it later.)
Toss the bread crumbs with the oil until thoroughly moistened, then spread the bread crumbs evenly on top of the cassoulet. Bake the cassoulet for 1 hour. After an hour, use the side of a large spoon to break the crust on top in several places. Decrease the oven temperature to 250 degrees F and bake the cassoulet for another 2 1/2 hours, breaking the crust two more times while cooking. Remove the cassoulet from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes. If you want to serve the cassoulet reheated, as many prefer it, let it cool to room temperature for 1 1/2 hours, and then refrigerate it.
To serve the cassoulet reheated, remove the cassoulet from the refrigerator 1 hour before you plan to reheat it. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Break through a piece of the top of the cassoulet, and if you don’t see much liquid surrounding the beans beneath the surface, add some of the reserved bean liquid – just enough to moisten the insides a little, about 1/2 cup. Bake the cassoulet for 1 1/2 hours, or until it’s completely heated through. If the topping isn’t crusty, turn the oven up to broil – if you’re using a ceramic dish, turn the oven just to 450 degrees F, and watch carefully until the top is browned to your liking Remove the cassoulet from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes. Serve the cassoulet in its dish at the table. It requires no other accompaniments, although a glass of Armagnac after (or in place of) dessert is considered obligatory to aid digestion. As is a pat on the back for making the cassoulet.
This is the best cassoulet I’ve had. The meats are spectacular, the broth and beans are perfect, and I love the crust on top. Five stars!