Drafty Castle Cassoulet

The ultimate in rich, decadent dishes that will soothe what ails you while at the same time giving you strength for dragon-slaying.  This is stick-your-ribs, GOT food y'all.  I call it "drafty castle cassoulet" because this is something I imagine was eaten with regularity in, well, drafty castles in winter.  It hits all the right points - crispy meats on top with savory and silky beans simmering beneath.  This is classic French "soul food" from the southwestern region, and features almost everything good food about Gascony in one pot.  I choose to prepare everything for this dish from scratch except the sausage, and stick to local ingredients as much as possible - the exception being the apple brandy, which I have not yet been able to find a still for in Virginia (but if you know of any, please tell me!)

I caution you that this is a two-day affair to prepare, so read this recipe through.  I personally think it is more than worth the effort.  lf you have some serious carnivores coming over for dinner and want to make an impression, this is fool proof.

Do not be put off by all of the super-saurated fat that you will use to prepare the duck because it does not all go into the final dish.  But, if you are going to make this dish go all in and top it with crushed bbq pork rinds.  Have your fruit or advocate toast in the morning.

I divide this recipe into days and steps.


2 cups dry Great Northern Beans, like these from Camellia Beans

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 unsmoked ham hocks

1/4 pound bacon, uncured, thick sliced

2 duck legs

2 heads of garlic

2 medium yellow onions

1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

1 teaspoon ground thyme

1 teaspoon ground sage

1/2 pound good lard

2 cups rendered duck fat (you can get this from your butcher)

2 cups extra virgin olive oil

Fresh Herbs: 2 sprigs rosemary, 2 sprigs thyme, 2 bay leaves, 5 whole cloves, 1 small carrot, onion, small bunch of parsley, and stalks from the celery root

4 good pork sausages, like Linguica, Garlic, or this one from Charlie's

1 small celery root with stalks

1 granny smith apple

1 small turnip

1/2 cup good apple brandy, like Calvados or Applejack

2 tablespoons homemade or store bought Demi Glace (available in the soup or seasoning aisle of your grocery store.)

1/2 cup crushed good bbq pork rinds, like this one from Epic

Day One:

1. Pick over the beans for stones, debris, and duds.  Place in a large pot and cover with several inches of cold water.  Add the baking soda and set the pot aside to soak the beans overnight.

2.  Cut the bacon slices into thirds. Place in a large pot with the ham hocks and cover with water by a couple of inches.  Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and let simmer for about 8 minutes.  Remove the hocks and bacon to a plate and let cool.   Dump the water.

3.  In a small bowl mix together the white pepper, thyme, and sage.  

4.  When the hocks are cooled, place on a plate with the duck legs.  Put the bacon in a small container or sandwich bag.  Season the hocks and duck legs with the pepper, thyme, and sage.  Cover the plate with plastic wrap and place the plate and bacon in the refrigerator overnight.

Day Two:

Note:  Have your 3-quart casserole dish ready to go when you start!

1.  Preheat oven to 350F. 

2. Peel all as much of the outer paper from the head of garlic as you can while keeping the head in tact.  Take one of the onions and peel the onion skin.  Make three small slits in the onion and stick in the cloves. 

3.  Make the confit:  In a large, heavy bottom dutch oven, melt the lard and duck fat.  Once melted, pour in the olive oil and swirl gently to combine.  Tuck in the duck legs, skin side down, then the ham hocks, 1 sprig each of rosemary and thyme, 1 bay leaf, peeled head of garlic and clove-studded onion.  Push down gently to ensure everything is submerged, cover, and place in the oven for 90 minutes.  (Your home is going to smell amazing . . .)

4.  Remove the confit from oven and let cool in the pot for about 20 minutes.  Carefully remove the meats and head of garlic and let drain a bit.  Discard the herbs and onion, then set the fat aside to use for another purpose.  (It will keep in the fridge for about a month.  Duck fat fries anyone?) When the hock are cool, strip the meat and slice.  Dice the skin.  Set everything aside except discard the bones.

5.  Now, take a large piece of cheese cloth and make a bundle with the remaining unused onion, celery root stalks, carrot, cloves, parsley, bay leaf, and sprigs of thyme and rosemary.  Tie with kitchen string or knot tightly.

6. Drain the beans and place in a large pot.  Cover with 6-8 cups of water, add the salt, drop in the bouquet garni, and bring to a boil.   Then lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.  Remove and throw out the bouquet garni and remove all of the beans from the pot with a slotted spoon but keep the cooking liquid (you will need this later.) Add the beans to the casserole dish.

7. Peel the celery root, the apple, and the turnip.  Dice all of these vegetables. 

8.  Take one or two tablespoons of the duck fat you have saved and add to a heavy bottom pan.  Heat over medium heat until it shimmers, then add the sausages and brown them all over.  Remove the sausages and set aside.

9.  Add the diced vegetables and saute until soft and slightly browned.  Remove the vegetables from the pan and add to the casserole with the beans.  Return the pan to the heat and pour in the apple brandy, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon or spatula to deglaze. Let simmer for 3 minutes, or until you no longer can smell alcohol.  Stir in the demi glace and about 3 tablespoons of the bean cooking liquid, and stir to dissolve. Pour this into the casserole dish with the beans and vegetables.

10.  Take the cooled garlic confit, remove each clove and squeeze the contents into the beans. Add the sliced ham hocks and diced skin.  Toss everything gently to even distribute the vegetables, meat and garlic amongst the beans.  

11. Place the sausages around the perimeter of the casserole on top of the beans, Place the duck legs next to each other, skin side up in the center of the casserole. Lay the bacon slices across the top between the legs and sausages.  Pour in enough of the bean cooking liquid to cover JUST the beans.

12.  Put the cassoulet in the oven and bake, uncovered, for anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour, or until the beans are cooked and most of the liquid has been absorbed.

13.  Remove the casserole from the oven and raise the temperature to 450F.  Quickly sprinkle the crushed pot rinds all over the cassoulet and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes until the top is nicely crisped and the edges of the cassoulet are browned.

14.  Remove from the oven and let cool (it will keep its heat for a good 10-20 minutes).  Serve hot with a Burgundy wine and light green salad.  Pat your belly, grab your sword, and go slay some dragons.