Wine With . . . Cassoulet
by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas
For holiday entertaining, few things are as rewarding as cassoulet, the classic dish from southwestern France. A guaranteed crowd pleaser, this tasty, hearty fare is one of the most wine-friendly dishes imaginable. It’s a great dish to have simmering on the stove at a party or open house this time of year.
Because it is indigenous to a large geographic area, cassoulet is based on regional traditions and local ingredients rather than a single recipe. As Julia Child says (in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One), “variations and dogmatisms” are rampant. But the essential cassoulet concept is actually simple: Beans are cooked in a deep pot with a variety of different meats. The dish is almost always topped with a layer of crispy bread crumbs, and is redolent of garlic, herbs, and the richness of long, slow-cooking.
Though cassoulet is best when cooked at least a day ahead of time (or even weeks in advance, and frozen), we discovered that this dish can be absolutely delicious even without the desired resting period. We also found that it’s possible to make terrific cassoulet with a minimum of fuss and bother.
Most French recipes call for “haricots blancs”--white beans. We like to use navy beans because they are small, but other types such as Great Northern, Cannellini, and white limas are equally good. Incidentally, we stopped pre-soaking beans for any recipe several years ago. Soaking beans may minimally leach out those infamous gas-producing sugars, and may slightly reduce cooking times; but as long as the beans aren’t too old (i.e. they haven’t been sitting around in a kitchen cupboard for the past 12 months) these effects are negligible. Another long held myth about beans is that adding salt before they’re thoroughly cooked makes them tough; but in fact, adding salt to the water as they cook gives them time to absorb the salty flavors. (Adding it after the beans are cooked concentrates most of the saltiness on the surface of the beans.)
As for the meats included in the dish, there is another myth that claims duck defines cassoulet. Nonsense. As Julia Child wrote, “an extremely good cassoulet can be made anywhere out of beans and whatever of its traditional meats are available: goose, game, pork, sausages, lamb, mutton.” Not even a mention of duck. So yes, if duck is available (and better yet duck confit), by all means use it; but don’t be afraid to do as we did and substitute chicken. The resulting dish will be festive, full of flavor, and just the thing for celebrating the holiday season.
Feel free to add ham hocks, a chunk of ham, diced prosciutto, minced salt pork, and/or pieces of lamb to the mix, or to substitute duck or goose for the chicken.
1 pound dried white beans
6 cups water
About ¼ pound pancetta or bacon
6-8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 pound pork shoulder cut into 1-inch cubes
1 large onion, minced
1 carrot, diced
4-6 cloves garlic (or more, to taste), minced
½ cup minced parsley
2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 bay leaves
6 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon tomato paste or 1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes (drained)
1 pound Polish, garlic, or Kielbasa sausage
½ cup bread crumbs
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Simmer the beans in water for about 30 minutes, then drain and return them to the pot. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the pancetta or bacon and spread the pieces on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for about 5-8 minutes, or until the meat is partially cooked. Leave the grease in the bottom of the pan and remove the meats with a slotted spoon. Toss the cubes of pork shoulder and the chicken thighs with whatever bacon fat is in the pan, and bake for about 10 minutes, until the meats are lightly browned. Transfer the chicken to the refrigerator, and add the pork to the pot with the beans, along with the pancetta or bacon. Add the onion, carrots, garlic, parsley, thyme and bay leaves. Pour in the chicken stock (it should come a couple of inches above the level of the beans; if it doesn’t, add more stock or enough water to make up the difference). Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes, and stir in the tomato paste (or diced tomatoes). Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pot tightly, and transfer it to the oven. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees and bake for about 60 minutes. Nestle the chicken thighs into the bean mixture and cook for another 60-90 minutes, or until beans are very tender.
About an hour before serving, sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top of the cassoulet. Raise the temperature to 350 degrees and bake, uncovered, for about 60 minutes, or until crumbs are brown and crisp. Meanwhile, slice the sausage into 1 inch pieces and sauté them in a skillet until they are browned and cooked through. Cut the pieces in half, and when the cassoulet comes out of the oven distribute them over the top of it.
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We tried thirteen different red wines with our cassoulet. Since we were thinking of it as a dish for holiday entertaining, we only opened wines costing $20 or less (including one bag in box wine, which we’re recommending enthusiastically). The wines that disappointed us almost all were too big, tannic, or alcoholic. Whether a Zinfandel or Cabernet, and whether from Australia, the Americas, or Europe, they simply got in the way of the dish. By contrast, the wines we’re recommending all shared a soft, comforting mouth-feel. None were especially complex or multi-layered, but all were very enjoyable. Our conclusion, then, was that fancy, powerhouse reds will disappoint with cassoulet. Instead, look for soft, medium-weight wines that feel silky or velvety, their texture echoing that of the long-cooked beans in the dish.