I have this thing for beans. At the end of summer, when those lovely little white ones streaked with red and pink appear (already shelled!) in open markets, I'm there collecting at least two or three sacks for winter storage. Not only are these fresh beauties delicious simmered with white wine, toasted sage and sautéed garlic, they from the essence of one of the world's great French dishes, cassoulet.
There are those that swear by the version from Toulouse made with confit of duck. Others lean toward lamb or mutton in the concoction from Castelnaudary. But all agree that beans are the brides in this brilliant marriage of ham hock, confit of duck, sausage, pancetta, and vegetables. It's a dish that will cure anything that ails you in the winter months. A married friend just wrote me that the hearty dish brought both husband and wife back to snuff after winter ailments.
Not just any beans, of course, go into mine. The meaty, nutty-flavored borlotti or cannellini beans of summer are best, fresh from the pod and simmered in half water, half white wine along with the requisite ham hock, a sweet onion, chopped fine and sautéed with a few chopped cloves of garlic in olive oil, and a sprig of fresh thyme.
For a perfect cassoulet, begin with the beans, adding them to the casserole only at the end, as it goes into the oven for the last time, then simmering its way to succulence.
If you have a very large earthenware dish, you have the perfect pot for a cassoulet. This dish takes a bit longer to prepare than most, but oh, is it worth it in winter (speaking of which, it also freezes beautifully).
2 carrots, chopped fine.
— If you're using dry beans, put them in a large pot and cover with cold water and bring to a boil. Immediately turn off heat, let cool and throw out the water.
— Cover again with 1/2 water or chicken broth, and 1/2 white wine. Add 1 of the sweet onions, chopped fine, and bring to a simmer. Cook, covered, until tender, about 1 1/2 hours.
— Heat 4 tablespoons of duck fat in a 6-quart pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped garlic, onions, and carrots and cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.
— Add ham hocks along with cooked beans and their water and simmer together for 10-15 minutes.
— Take meat off ham hocks, discard skin, bone, and gristle. Chop meat; add to bean mixture. Set aside.
— Heat 4 tablespoons duck fat in a cassoulet casserole over medium-high heat.
— Add pork pieces and brown for 8 minutes. Add the pancetta cut in small pieces; cook for 5 minutes until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the fresh thyme and tomatoes and cook until liquid thickens, 8-10 minutes
— Add the wine and broth.
— Reduce heat to low; cook, uncovered, until liquid has thickened, about 1 hour.
— Meanwhile take meat off of confit of duck legs. Brown sausages, cut in rounds, in a little duck fat. Stir duck and sausages into the stew.
— Heat oven to 300F. Mix the beans and the stew in a large cassoulet earthenware casserole. Bake, covered, for 1 1/2 hours, then take off lid and continue baking at low heat until thick.
— Raise oven temperature to 500F; Spread bread crumbs over top of cassoulet and bake just until crust is golden, about 5 minutes.
The dish alone is a great remedy for winter's chills, but a nice red Amarone won't hurt either.