Mark Bittman's recent post on Cassoulet hits a highly resonant note with me. As many people know, I prepare Cassoulet once a year (I dub it "Cassoulet-fest"). This celebration of meat and beans can only reasonably be prepared in winter. I consider it one of the high points of rustic French cooking because not only does it have that rustic "stick to your ribs" quality, but it also demonstrates how various cooking techniques (confit, braised meats, sausage making, etc.) combine to form a harmonious whole.
I use the recipe from Julia Child's masterpiece "Mastering the Art". My copy was given to me by my friends and colleagues at Bell Labs when I was recuperating from back surgery. I used to read it in bed as I waited to heal. The recipe itself is somewhat long and involved, but not complicated. Julia, in her humorous style used the phrase with the subtitle "Order of Battle" --- but that overstates the case and I suspect frightens many off this very hearty and savory dish.
Let's start with confit. I used to buy this from D'Artagnan at about $10 a "pop" (thigh and drumstick). The conventional recipe uses a kind of Catch-22. You're supposed to confit the duck in a pot of duck fat. But you're supposed to use the leftover duck fat from your last confit! The new style recipe is to use Olive Oil to partial cover the meat and then slow roast (and I mean slow, as in 200-225 F). So, not only do you control the cooking, you save money. Big time money.
Next: the beans. Of course, one can buy the French white beans. When we lived in NJ, I bought the beans and also saucisson d'ail from the famed Balducci's at 6th Ave. and 9th. (Conveniently right around the corner from the PATH station). But today I just buy a two pound bag of Great Northern Beans (a wonderful bean) and deal with the sausage question myself.
And, speaking of sausages: You can, of course, use any one you find. I don't personally feel the need to use sausages. Julia has a delightful subrecipe for garlicky pork patties on the cassoulet page. I've made these numerous times. But if I'm feeling lazy, I just don't bother, particularly if I'm making the roast pork loin.
What makes Julia's recipe so nice (in my opinion) is the use of lamb. She slowly braises the lamb in a tomato white wine sauce. The result, when combined with the beans, is nothing short of delightful. The real fun of course is the "assemblage": the layering of beans and meats until both are gone. Then, top it off with the juices, cover with the breadcrumbs and away you go.
I've occasionally produced that wonderful crust, but I'm content just to pull my Paderno pot out of the oven to see the parsleyed browned breadcrumbs on top. Then pull the cork on a bottle of red from Southern France (Rhone, Languedoc...) and inhale the fragrant vapors. Who can resist?