A couple of days ago, one of my readers challenged me to make a Cassoulet using ingredients found in the US. The Cassoulet is a speciality from the Southwest region of France. It is a dish composed of mainly white beans and various pieces of meat, mainly porc, cooked on low heat over an extended period of time. Finding the various ingredients to make a Cassoulet in the US is very challenging. Most people will order from a speciality website that imports ingredients from France. The challenge that I took was the following: make a Cassoulet with ingredients found in grocery stores in my area, without having to order anything online. I took the challenge, and, though my Cassoulet is not perfect, I am quite happy with the result:
To make my Cassoulet, I followed 2 different recipes that I combined in order to make the best possible Cassoulet. One recipe I used is a French online recipe, the other recipe is a recipe from one of my father’s friends, who considered himself an expert in Cassoulet. Please note, you will need a dutch oven (cocotte) to make the Cassoulet.
To find the ingredients, I went to a so-called “international” grocery store. They do not have any French products, but they have Eastern European products as they cater to a fairly big Eastern European community in the area (if you are in the Chicago area, the store is called Fresh Farms). In that grocery store, I found pork skin (yes, the Cassoulet is a dish that requires pork skin!) and goose fat, both an important part of the Cassoulet.
Another important ingredient is sausage, which is traditionally the Toulouse Sausage, which I could not find anywhere. The Toulouse Sausage can be bought online on Amazon, but since my challenge was to stay clear of ordering online, I had to find a substitute. After doing some research, I learned that the Polish Kielbasa Sausage is an acceptable substitute to the Toulouse sausage for the Cassoulet. That sausage was easy to find in my area.
The Cassoulet also requires an additional meat, which based on my 2 recipes could be either pork ribs, mutton shoulder or pork shoulder. Pork ribs are easy to find in the US. I nevertheless opted for pork shoulder called “pork butt” instead, as I did not want to deal with the bones of the pork ribs.
Some Cassoulet recipes also add duck confit. According to my father’s friend (the one who considers himself an expert in Cassoulet), duck confit is not a requirement for a Cassoulet, especially if making a Cassoulet from Castelnaudary, the town where Cassoulet was born, as duck confit is more of a speciality of areas north of that town (still in the southwest of France though, just north of Castelnaudary). There are about 10 different ways to make Cassoulet, if you can believe that! Anyway, I was quite happy not to include duck confit as I could not find it in any store in my area anyway.
The main vegetable and the highlight of the Cassoulet is white beans. Thankfully, white beans are very easy to find in the US. My father’s friend recommends white beans from Chile. I bought large lima white beans. The other vegetable is onions, also easy to find.
Some Cassoulet recipes also include carrots, and some even include tomatoes. The recipe of my father’s friend does not include these, but the online recipe includes a carrot. I chose to use a carrot to add a little color to the dish.
The usual herbs are what we call in France “bouquet garni”, which contain multiple herbs including bay leaf, rosemary and thyme, as well as garlic. You can easily buy these separately in the US.
As I said earlier, I combined an online recipe with the recipe of my father’s friend. The advice I used from my father’s friend was to first cook the pork skin for 45 minutes in boiling water, and then use the cooked pork skin to cook the white beans. In other words, put the cook pork skin in the pot in which you cook the white beans. This will prevent the beans from sticking to the pot, which is very important because the beans are such an important part of the dish, they need to be cooked right. I also followed the advice of the online recipe to soak the white beans in water for 6 hours, prior to making the Cassoulet.
I browned the sausages in a skillet with goose fat, as advised by my father’s friend. Additionally, the online recipe advocated for adding the sausages at a later point in the baking. I followed the recipe of my father’s friend in that I put the sausages in the dutch oven (cocotte) together with all the other ingredients at the beginning of the baking. My reasoning is that the longer it bakes, the better. Following that same reasoning, I baked the dish for 2 hours.
So here is my recipe:
Hope you too can make a Cassoulet using ingredients you find in your area! Otherwise, you can always order ingredients online.