chef's table

CASSOULET ALL DAY

Eat like the French with this comforting dish from the countryside.

WRITTEN BY HEIDI BETHEL 
PHOTOS BY JEN BRITTON

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Oui! Oui! Originating in the south of France, cassoulet is a hearty dish filled with meat, pork skin, and white beans that is a staple in the homes of many. With recipes passed down for generations, there are endless variations on this rich, slow-cooked casserole. No matter the preparation, expect warming culinary comfort as the temperature drops.

Mark Estee, chef/owner of the Nevada Museum of Art’s chez louie, Liberty Wine Exchange in Reno, and The Union in Carson City, has fond memories of learning to prepare cassoulet.

“I was working at a French restaurant in Rhode Island while attending culinary school when I made cassoulet for the first time. I remember thinking, this is such a great dish for the cooler months and a nice take on a one-pot meal,” he recalls.

Estee’s version, served seasonally at chez louie, includes beans, sausage, and chicken legs. Perhaps his favorite twist on the traditional list of ingredients is using duck fat mixed with breadcrumbs to top the casserole, creating an immensely flavorful crust.

“It’s a fun dish to make because you’re cooking with different proteins that bring an unforgettable character,” he says. “It’s definitely a dish that takes several days to prepare, and you can tell when you taste the final product.”

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Cassoulet creativity

Options abound for making this dish, but Estee recommends sticking with a few traditional ingredients, including beans and pork.

“Try mixing in Basque chorizo and other local sausage. Add pork belly or bacon for even more depth,” he says. “And use any one of the many different heirloom beans grown in this region for some really earthy notes.”

Served alongside a smooth French pinot and crusty bread, cassoulet is a delicious meal that will fill you up this fall and winter.

Heidi Bethel is a French food fanatic who enjoys the warmth from a dish prepared with an undeniable passion for the process.

Recipe

Cassoulet à la chez

(courtesy of Mark Estee, chef/owner, chez louie in Reno’s Nevada Museum of Art, Liberty Wine Exchange in Reno, and The Union in Carson City. Serves 4)

4 chicken legs

4 cups duck fat

2 bay leaves

Kosher salt, to taste

8 juniper berries

1 bunch fresh sage

Prepared cannellini beans (recipe below)

4 sausage links (preferably from Liberty Wine Exchange)

8 ounces slab bacon (preferably from Liberty Wine Exchange)

Bread crumbs and duck fat

For confit, start process 48 hours before assembling dish. Score top of chicken legs so meat can pull away from bone. Combine kosher salt, juniper berries, and sage for a rub and evenly coat chicken legs. Cover and place in refrigerator 24 hours.

The next day, gently remove spice rub from chicken legs and pat dry. Heat duck fat to 180 degrees F in braising pan. Place chicken legs in duck fat and cover. Cook in oven at 200 degrees F for 5 hours. Remove from oven and let legs rest in duck fat in refrigerator.

Brown sausage and bacon in casserole pan. Remove confit chicken legs from fat, scrape and set rendered duck fat aside, and add chicken legs to casserole pan. Add beans. Bring to a simmer, then adjust seasoning, being careful not to add too much salt. Check for pepper. Add any remaining fond or jus from the bottom of the confit pan. Let simmer 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix bread crumbs and rendered duck fat. Sprinkle over meat and bean mixture and bake 15 minutes, until golden crust forms. Remove from oven and serve!

Cannellini beans

2 pounds dry cannellini beans

Water to cover

1 head garlic, cut in half

2 tablespoons salt

1 bouquet garni (instructions below)

½ bunch celery, cut into large pieces

1 onion, peeled and halved

2 carrots, halved

1 smoked pork shank (preferably from Liberty Wine Exchange)

Soak beans in salted water 24 hours. Rinse beans and place in soup pot. Cover with water. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 60 to 90 minutes, until tender.

Remove garlic, bouquet garni, celery, onion, and carrot. Remove shank and pull meat, then add back to beans.

For bouquet garni Wrap fresh thyme, sage, and bay leaf in a bundle with twine to make a tight package that won’t come apart in the pot.

From left, Jan Solberg, Brenda Horton, Susan Hamarlund, and Sue Higgins of the Ladies Auxiliary of the Fleet Reserve Association serve muffins to veterans at Carson City’s Veterans Memorial Hall

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