A cassoulet is essentially a rich white bean stew simmered in a crockware pot or dutch oven. Many people feel that cassoulet “must” involve duck; but this is simply not true. There are endless regional and familial variations of cassoulet, with whatever game happens to be available.
For this variation, Cornish hens were on sale, so I purchased one package of two hens to serve four people. As well, our local market has a very nice chicken-garlic sausage and thick-sliced artisanal applewood smoked bacon. I used these meats as the “foundation” for this cassoulet . In the past, I have used duck breast or pheasant instead of the cornish hens, if that’s what I had.
Usually I make cassoulet in my heavy Lodge cast iron Dutch Oven, but since I want to go out for the afternoon, I will use my larger electric crockpot and a saute pan. The advantage to this is that it allows me to drain off the excess fat from the bacon, sausage and hens — making it a much healthier version than the one Nana made.
I’ll serve the cassoulet in rimmed soup plates with Farmer’s Bread, a crisp baby greens salad and a really full-bodied red wine.
The nice thing about using the crockpot is I was able to prep the bread as I was making the cassoulet; cleaning up as we went, and then prepping the green salad in advance as well. So, when we were ready to step out the door to class across town in rush hour traffic, bread was baked and cooling, covered with clean tea towels, salad was ready and covered with saran wrap in fridge, cassoulet was contently simmering in the crockpot, table was set with fresh linens and the kitchen cleaned, counters scrubbed and floors washed…. meaning coming home to comfort food after fighting traffic back cross town was something to look forward to, not dread.
Decork the wine, slice the bread into generous chunks, ladle out the cassoulet and dinner’s served!
We’ll be gone for about 4 hours, so before we leave, I’ll stir the cassoulet and add more fresh cold water if needed to keep beans covered, making sure crockpot is now turned to “low”.
The recipe can be adjusted up or down, and roughly the proportions per person are:
1 bag of dried great northern beans = 8 servings, I used ½ bag for four people
½ cornish hen or duck breast/leg per person (2 cornish hens for 4)
1 slice thick-cut bacon (4 slices)
1 sausage (4 sausages)
1 carrot (4 medium carrots)
1 rib celery (4 ribs of celery)
½ onion (1 large onion)
1 large sprig fresh french thyme (4)
1 sprig fresh flat leaf Italian parsley (4)
1 large clove fresh garlic, peeled (4)
½ can diced tomatoes (I chose fire-roasted with garlic) (2 – 14 oz cans for 4)
1 tbsp tomato paste (4 tbsp)
1/8 cup red wine (½ cup total)
1 tsp chopped garlic (1 generous tbsp)
1 tsp dried thyme
dried bay leaves (2)
cayenne pepper (omit if you don’t want it spicy)
Coleman’s powdered mustard
ground fresh pepper
1 – 2 days before:
Rinse dried beans and cover in a large bowl with cold water. Cover and let rest overnight.
(I often will soak mine for two days, pouring off old water the next morning and adding fresh. Keep in a cool place while soaking, fridge is preferable if possible). When ready to use, drain in a colander and rinse well.
**Note: the cassoulet takes at least 8 – 10 hrs in the crockpot. Ideally, I like to make the day before we want to eat it; overnight, the beans absorb more of the flavorful liquid and the sauce thickens up nicely. It really is better the second day.
To start, Day Of:
Strip leaves from fresh rosemary
Slice fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, and parsley into a pestle.
Grind fresh herbs with mortar to make a paste.
Stir in 1 tbsp softened butter, 1 tbsp olive oil, salt and pepper.|
Mix together to make a smooth paste. Set aside, allowing flavors to marry.
In a spice shaker, mix together 1 tsp pepper, 1 tsp sea salt, 1 tsp dried garlic, 1 tbsp oregano, 1 tbsp paprika, 1 tbsp dried thyme, pinch of cayenne pepper. Shake/blend well. (This can be done beforehand)
Wash four ribs of celery; thinly slice.
Peel and slice into chunks the four carrots.
Peel onion, and coarsely dice.
Roughly chop parsley and peeled cloves of fresh garlic.
Rinse hens well. With a sharp knife or a pair of kitchen shears, slice each bird along the meridian so you have 4 equal portions with one wing and one leg each.
Fry up 1 slice of thick-cut bacon per person. Make sure bacon is extra-crisp, including fat.
Using a bacon press will help make sure that the bacon fat is crisped.
Remove, set aside and pat dry on paper towel.
While bacon is frying, lift skin from breasts of cornish hens. Smear/coat liberally the breast meat of each hen between the meat and the skin with the butter/olive oil/fresh herb mixture.
Drain excess fat from saute pan, then place “stuffed” hens breast side down. Sprinkle cut side (the side that is facing you) liberally with your seasoning blend. Cover with a bacon press and fry until skin is nice and crispy. Remove and arrange in the bottom of a large crockpot.
Drain any fat from the cornish hens; ladle excess butter/herb mixture into pan. Fry sausages on all sides until crispy in the butter/herb blend. Remove sausages and wipe pan clean.
Now turn heat down to medium-low and saute vegetables with parsley and garlic in the thin layer of fat remaining in pan. When vegetables are becoming tender-crisp, season liberally with sea salt to taste and stir.
Start layering hens in bottom of crockpot, skin side up. Season liberally with the salt/garlic/thyme/paprika mixture. Chop sausages into 4 equal portions each and slice bacon into ribbons. Sprinkle over hens in crockpot. Pour 2 cans of diced tomatoes with juice into crockpot, add slightly cooked vegetables with parsley and garlic. Top with sprigs of fresh thyme and 2 dried bay leaves. I pre-cook the vegetables slightly in the saute pan, because otherwise, sometimes the beans and meat are cooked but the carrots and celery are still “crunchy”. I don’t have the same problem when I make cassoulet in the Dutch oven, only in the crockpot.
Meanwhile, in one of the empty tomato tins, mix together 4 tbsp tomato paste, ½ cup of red wine, 1 tbsp chopped garlic, and a pinch of Coleman’s mustard until well incorporated and smooth. Pour over vegetables and meats layered in crockpot.
Add rinsed and soaked beans to top of the layers. Because I can always use beans in something, I pre-soaked the entire bag (approx 12 oz) for two days ahead of time. I estimate approx 1 to 1 ½ dry measure cups of soaked beans per person. Cover with cold filtered water until beans are covered, so they don’t dry out as they’re cooking. You may need to top up a few more times as beans cook and absorb the liquid.
Cover with lid and set on high until water begins to bubble, approx 1 hr.
Turn down to low, and allow to simmer on low for 4 – 5 hrs.
Enjoy with crusty Farmer’s Bread, green salad and a robust French red wine.
My youngest doesn’t care for the sausage, so I made a smaller batch (2 person size) for her in another smaller crockpot, cooking at the same time, but instead of Cornish hens, I used two chicken backs and 4 slices of deli black forest ham sliced into ribbons instead of the sausage, and more bacon., and excluded the cayenne pepper in the seasoning. Everything else was the same.