How to make the best Cassoulet you've ever tasted

pork and beans

Peasant food in one country can be a gourmet dinner in another. All it takes is one or two expensive ingredients, and lots of time. Reckon on about three days to make a memorable cassoulet.

First, buy dried haricot beans. Cassoulet is basically pork and beans, and you must use the correct beans. You can tell whereabouts they should be in the local Tesco by the puzzled Frenchman standing there, talking into his mobile phone.

"Zey sell only butter beans, I think - is ok? No?"

No. So you get back in the car and go to Waitrose instead, and so does he.

You need about 400g of dried beans for four people. Buy a 500g packet, and throw some in the bin. This isn't compulsory, of course - you could keep the spare beans until they go bad and then throw them away, or you could use them instead of confetti at a wedding, if you happened to be going to one. Or you could fire them through a peashooter at the neighbour's cat. Or you could just chuck them in with the rest, which is what I did. Someone might be hungry.

If the beans came out of a sack in the health food shop, pour them onto the table and sift through them to pick out the healthy grit and small stones, then wash off the dust. When you're satisfied they're safe to eat, put your beans in a stockpot and cover them with cold water. Put the bowl somewhere out of the way for twelve hours or so. Or, according to another recipe, bring them to the boil, cover, remove from the heat and leave them for an hour or so.

It's the beans you want, not the liquid. In the Languedoc they use this liquid as a stain remover, so don't drink it!. Pour it down the drain! Then add another two or three pints of water and a little salt, and bring to the boil again.

Right, you now have a pot full of soggy beans. That's the first step. Now you need some lumps of MEAT! One recipe says: half a pound (200g) of blanched streaky bacon, a pound (450g) of pork loin, a pound of shoulder of mutton, and six ounces (200g) of garlic sausage (in a lump - not sliced ready for sandwiches). Another adds 350g of 'preserved goose' ('Confit d'Oie' - it comes in tins). Another includes a lump of roast pork. Any red meat will probably do.

Now it's nearly time to mix all the flavours together.

Then eat it. Yum, yum.

*   *  *

You may have noticed that all this takes an extremely long time. Reckon on 5 or 6 hours of hard work. This is because cassoulet is actually three good dinners and a light lunch, all in the same pot. But it doesn't really matter if it takes several days to cook, because you can always let the pot go cold and then re-heat it.

To make life easier, here is a detailed recipe based on the one in 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' and scaled for four people. In essence, per person you need roughly 100g of beans, a tomato, 100g of pork, 100g of mutton, 50g of bacon, 50g of sausage and 10g of breadcrumbs.

It's difficult to buy a pound of pork loin, so I bought a kilo and cut it in half. Next time I'll roast both pieces at the same time, and we'll eat one for dinner that night. It also makes sense to cook the mutton at the same time as the pork, but this would involve changing the preparation sequence.

--- On Thursday afternoon:

1. Prepare the pork - overnight

  • Buy a pound of boned pork loin.
  • Cut off the excess fat and put it on a plate in the fridge (for #6).
  • Get the mortar. Put in 2 peppercorns, half a teaspoon of sage and a bit of bay leaf. Grind them together.
  • Mix in a teaspoon of salt, a pinch of allspice and half a mashed garlic clove.
  • Rub the mixture into the surface of the pork.
  • Put the pork in a covered bowl in the fridge overnight (for #3).

2. Soak the beans - overnight

  • Find a big pot.
  • Drop in a pound (500g) of dried haricot beans.
  • Add enough cold water to more than cover the beans. Stir.
  • !Warning! - the beans double in volume as they soak up the water.
  • Cover the pot and put it in the pantry overnight.

--- On Friday:

3. Fry the pork - 15 minutes

  • Heat the oven to 160 degC.
  • Get the marinated pork from the fridge.
  • Dry it thoroughly or it will spit in the hot fat.
  • Get a roasting pot.
  • Cover the bottom with oil, and heat until it's almost smoking.
  • Brown the pork on all sides, then put it on a plate.
  • Pour all but 2 spoons of fat out of the pot, and keep it (for #12).

4. Roast the pork - 1 hour

  • Get a small onion and carrot.
  • Slice them thinly and put them in the pot.
  • Add a clove of garlic.
  • Add 2 parsley sprigs, a quarter teaspoon of thyme and a bit of bay leaf.
  • Cover the pot and cook slowly for 5 minutes.
  • Put the pork back into the pot, fatty side up.
  • Heat the pot until the pork is sizzling.
  • Cover the pot and put it in the bottom of the oven for an hour.
  • (- aim for a meat thermometer temperature of 85 degC.)
  • Baste the pork with the cooking juices after half an hour.
  • Take out the pork and put it on a plate (for #12).
  • Mash the vegetables into the juice, and keep it (for #11).

--- Whilst the pork is roasting:

5. Prepare the beans - 1 hour plus

  • Get the pot with the soaked beans out of the pantry.
  • Drain off the water and pour it away.
  • Put 1.8 pints (1 litre) of water into a really big saucepan and bring it to the boil.
  • Drop in the soaked haricot beans.
  • Bring the water back to the boil for 2 minutes. A huge froth forms.
  • Remove from the heat and let the beans soak for an hour.
  • Drain, and throw away the water.

--- Whilst the pork is roasting and the beans are soaking:

6. Prepare the pork fat - 1 hour

  • Put a quarter of a pound (100g) of fresh pork rind in another pan.
  • Cover with three-quarters of a pint (400ml) of cold water.
  • Bring to the boil for 1 minute.
  • Drain, then rinse in cold water.
  • Repeat, with clean water.
  • Use scissors to cut the fat into little triangles about 5mm on a side.
  • Add another 400ml of cold water and bring to the boil.
  • Simmer very slowly for half an hour.

--- When the beans are ready:

7. Mix the bacon and beans - 5 minutes

  • Add the cooked pork fat and its liquid (#6) to the beans in the big pan.
  • Add a half pound chunk (200g) of unsmoked unsalted bacon.
  • Add a small sliced onion.
  • Add a herb bouquet, wrapped in cheesecloth (or sprinkle the dried herbs):
  • 3 sprigs of parsley, 2 unpeeled garlic cloves, 1 clove, half a teaspoon of thyme, 1 bay leaf.
  • Add half a dessertspoon of salt (for unsmoked bacon!).

8. Simmer the bacon and beans - 2 hours

  • Bring the mixture to simmering point.
  • Skim off the scum.
  • Simmer slowly, uncovered, for an hour and a half (or until the beans are just tender).
  • Add boiling water (if necessary) during cooking to keep the beans covered.
  • Season with salt and pepper near the end of cooking.
  • Leave to cool until you're ready to use it (in #12).

--- Whilst the bacon and beans are simmering together:

9. Fry the mutton - 15 minutes

  • Get a pound of boned shoulder (or breast) of mutton with no excess fat.
  • Cut the meat into two-inch chunks.
  • Dry each piece thoroughly so it won't spit.
  • Cover the bottom of a cookpot with 2mm of cooking oil and pork fat.
  • Heat until the oil is almost smoking.
  • Brown the meat, a few pieces at a time.
  • Brown the bones (though you won't be eating them).
  • Put the meat on a plate for a while.
  • If necessary, change the oil.
  • Add a quarter of a pound (150g) of chopped onions.
  • Brown the onions gently for 5 minutes.

10. Simmer the mutton in wine - 2 hours

  • Heat the oven to 160 degC.
  • Put the mutton and bones back into the cookpot.
  • Put in 2 mashed cloves of garlic.
  • Add 2 large tinned tomatoes, chopped finely, and a tablespoon of tomato puree.
  • Add half a teaspoon of thyme and a bayleaf.
  • Add a pinch of sugar.
  • Add half a pint (300ml) of dry white wine.
  • Add half a pint (280ml) of brown stock and a teaspoon of Stockpot goo.
  • Season with salt and pepper.
  • Bring the mixture to simmering point.
  • Put the cookpot in the oven at 160 degC.
  • Leave it there for an hour and a half.
  • Then take out the meat and put it on a plate (for #12).
  • Put the bones and bayleaf in the bin.
  • Remove all but 2 tablespoons of fat and correct the seasoning.
  • Keep the meat cooking juices (for #11).

--- When the mutton is cooked:

11. Flavour the beans - 10 minutes

  • Drain the beans and keep the liquid (for #11).
  • Remove the bacon for now and put it on a plate (for #12).
  • Remove and throw away the herb bouquet, if you used one.
  • Pour the mutton cooking juices (#10) onto the beans.
  • Add the juices from the roast pork (#4).
  • Add enough bean-juice liquid (#8) to cover the beans.
  • Bring the mixture to simmering point.
  • Simmer for 5 minutes.
  • Remove from the heat and let it stand for 10 minutes.
  • Then drain the beans and keep the liquid (for #12).

--- When everything is cooked and ready:

12. Put it all together

  • Get the beans (#8) and the cooked meats, including Polish or Toulouse sausage.
  • Cut up the bacon, the pork, the mutton and the sausage into bite-sized pieces.
  • Mix them carefully into the beans.
  • Add the meat juices (#11).
  • Add enough bean juice (#8) to just reach the top layer of beans.
  • Mix 3oz (100g) of breadcrumbs with 4 tablespoons chopped parsley.
  • Sprinkle this on top.
  • Pour 1-2 tablespoons of fat on top of that.
  • Put it in the fridge.

--- On Saturday afternoon:

13. Baking

  • Heat the oven to 190 degC.
  • Get the casserole to simmering point on top of the cooker.
  • Shove it in the top of the oven.
  • Leave it for 20 minutes.
  • Turn down the oven to 175 degC.
  • Break the crust and stir it in.
  • Add more breadcrumbs.
  • Repeat this twice, adding more breadcrumbs.
  • Let the casserole cook in the oven for an hour altogether.
  • There should be a crust on top at the end.

--- On Saturday evening:

pork and beans

14. Get some friends round, and eat it!