Le Cassoulet de Cleopatra

This is a recipe for one of the best cassoulets we have ever had, in France, the United States or elsewhere. This cassoulet was prepared by Dany Chouet, chef and co-owner of Cleopatra, a bed and breakfast inn in Blackheath, about two or three hours (depending on construction and traffic on the Parramatta Road) west of Sydney, Australia.

The recipe given is based on the one that Dany provided for the Sydney Times (we believe, but the photocopier lopped this off of our copy). We include our own notes on cassoulet and confit, one of its key ingredients.

Note that cassoulet is a complicated dish and takes a fair bit of planning and a number of days to cook, so read this recipe carefully and try and schedule things.

Step One: Make the Confit

Confit of duck or goose is a preserve made by slowly cooking the salted and seasoned meat of the bird in its own (or compatible) fat. It was an effective means of preserving such meats before the age of refrigeration. However, in a confit is not merely fowl preserved, but fowl improved. The recipe provided by Dany follows:

For use in the cassoulet, these duck legs must be started at least three days beforehand. They can be preserved in the refrigerator for up to two months, as long as they are completely covered with duck fat and no air bubbles remain:

Clean the duck legs, but leave all the fat on them. Combine the thyme, rosemary, garlic and bay leaf. Place duck legs in a large mixing bowl or large plastic container, rub them on both sides with the herb mixture, and season with salt pepper and nutmeg. Cover tightly and leav in the refrigerator overnight, preferably for 24 hours.

The next day, melt the duck fat in a large saucepan or casserole dish over a very low heat. Meanwhile, remove the legs one by one and thoroughly wipe dry with kitchen paper (e.g. paper towels). When the fat is just warm, but not boiling, plunge the legs carefully in the pot. Cook very slowly, barely simmering for 2 to 3 hours. The confit is cooked when easily pierced by a wooden (or slotted) spoon and set aside in a ceramic or strong plastic dish. When the fat is lukewarm, pour it through a fine sieve over the meat. When it has thoroughly cooled, cover and place in the fridge.

We use a slightly different approach, based largely on Madeleine Kamman's recipe in her book In Madeleine's Kitchen. Read Dany's recipe above, then consider our variation. (Our variations page also has pointers to a couple of other recipes to help use up some confit side products).

If you want, you can ignore steps two, three and four. Just wait a few days and cook up the confit pieces in a frying pan and fry up some potatoes in the extra duck fat. Make sure you crisp any pieces of duck skin when frying them. Eat the duck and pommes frite alone or with some spinach or arugula. Oh yes, you should consider having a glass of red wine as the antidote.

You can also use duck or goose fat to preserve lamb. Check out our recipe for lamboons and lamboon and cranberry bean cassoulet.

Step Two: Do the Marinade

The trick with this step is the garlic and parsley mixture. Parsley is a massively under-rated herb and is often used strictly for visual purposes, rather than as a flavoring component. In this dish, its taste is critical. We recommend using flat leaf parsley rather than the curly stuff.

The day before: Finely chop half a head of garlic and parsely and mix well together.

Remove excess fat from pork neck and tidy the meat by trimming. Pierce holes along the meat and insert salt, pepper and the garlic and parsley mixture deep into the meat. Tie up with string like a roast. Leave the skin on the pork belly, remove bones, but reserve them for later.

Arrange the pork skins flat on the board, season normally with salt and freshly ground pepper, then spread thickly with the garlic and parsley mixture. Roll up like a thick sausage and tie with string at 1.5 cm (3/4 inch) intervals.

Place the three cuts of meat (the neck, the belly and the rolled up skin) in a large container. Cover with 1.5 litres of white wine, sprinkle over one tablespoon of whole black peppercorns and immerse the bouquet garni. Cover and place in the fridge. Before going to bed at night, turn the meats around in the marinade.

Step Three: Prepare the Dish

This is really most of it. Here the beans and marinated meats are cooked together to create what comprises the bulk of the cassoulet. If you want to, you can line the cooking pan with pork skin, you can cook the beans and meats in the oven or on the stove top. By the time the beans expand we usually have so much cassoulet that we cannot fit it all in our fridge and tend to use the trunk of our car as backup cold storage. If you are making a double or triple batch and need to do this, make sure it is cold out and that you close your windows to keep out any stray animals. Also, lose the pine tree deodorizer, your car will smell great.

On the day, (or one day ahead) of serving: Place the beans in a large pot, cover generously with cold water, add the studded onion and the bay leaf. Bring to the boil and cook for about 30 minutes (or an hour).

Strain the beans in a colander and refresh in cold water (i.e. cool them down with cold water) Discard the onion and bay leaf and leave the beans to drain. (Keep the bouquet garni).

Take the meat from the marinade and strain. Heat oven to 200C (400F) and roast the neck only, basting often with a little of the marinade. Cook for about one hour and 15 minutes, then set aside.

At the same time, in a large thick-based pot, fry the smoked speck with duck fat.until golden, then add diced carrots and onions.

Saute gently for about 15 minutes without browning. Add the tomato flesh, reduce to a nice, thick consistency. Season with freshly ground black pepper only.

Add all the drained beans, mix together with the sauce, pour in the remaining strained marinade, and bring gently to the boil.

Bury the pork belly and skin roll into the beans with the bouquet garni. Chop the garlic and add to the beans. Bring the level of liqued up with the stock, until rests about 2cm (1 inch) above the beans.

Do not stir the mixture any more. Let it simmer, covered, for at least one and a half hours, maybe more, checking the meats with a skewer to see if they are done.

Remove the meats from the pot as soon as they are cooked. Set aside witht he roast pork neck and let cool. If they are to used the day after, let them cool and keep well-covered in the fridge. Pour beans out of the pot into a bowl and stir to equalize the flavours. Discard the bouquet garni.

Step Four: Serving the Cassoulet

The care you take with the final step depends on exactly how pretty you want it to look. We aren't very fussy, so we just pile everything in, kind of like rocky road ice cream. We also cook our sausages in with the beans rather than separately. The classic French topping consists of bread crumbs and walnut oil, but duck fat works too.

Heat oven to 200C (400F). Half fill a large earthenware gratin dish with beans. Thickly (1/2 inch slices) slice the roast pork and the pork belly, slice the skin roll thinly (1/4 inch slices), grill the pork sausages on one side only, remoe the confit duck legs from the fat.

Arrange in alternating slices, embedded into the beans, the duck legs, pork neck slices, belly slices, skin slices and sausages (place grilled halves on top). Bury all meats halfway into the beans and pour the roast pork jus all over.

Mix together the breadcrumbs, one large crushed clove of garlic and chopped Italian parsley and sprinkle generously all over the top. Drizzle a little.liquid duck fat (from the confit) on top of the breadcrumbs to crisp them. Bake in the oven for 30 to 40 minutes, until golden brown on top, very hot and sizzling around the edges. Serves 6 to 10 people. (Can be reheated the next day, or the next, until all eaten).

So, there you have it. Dany's amazing cassoulet. We wish the recipe were simpler, but Cassoulet Helper just doesn't cut it. If you make the duck confit and just can't face making the cassoulet, just dig out some pieces and fry them up with sliced potatoes. On the other hand, you may (depending on your luck and cooking skills) be missing the best cassoulet in the world.