The best cassoulet I’ve ever had was the one Anthony Bourdain prepared for the Cleveland episode of his show No Reservations, in my old kitchen. He was still on good terms with Les Halles, the Manhattan restaurant where he’d been working when he published Kitchen Confidential, and he had brought some great sausages that kitchen made. He also came with a huge sheet of pig skin with which to line the cooking vessel (a great luxury). I don’t remember specifically how the cassoulet tasted, only that it was extraordinary—because it was about more than the taste. It was the whole experience of making it and sharing it, an example of the true power of food. It’s not only about pleasing our palate and sating our hunger; it’s about bringing people together. Which was Tony’s gift to the world up until his death in 2018.
A cassoulet is traditionally cooked in an earthenware bowl that is narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, which is important, as this creates more surface area relative to the total quantity of stew. The surface area browns during the cooking—and this kind of browning of proteins, of course, is flavor. Continually in pressing the dried, browned crust that forms on the surface into the stew gives that flavor to the cooking broth. The crust is “broken” or pressed down seven or eight times depending on your source. But this number is about right—it amounts to roughly once every 15 minutes after it has developed a crust. So that magic number seven may have developed as a way to keep track of the time more than some sort of cassoulet divination.
There are those who like to cover the cassoulet with bread crumbs. If you start with bread crumbs, then you won’t be able to get the extra flavors of the gratin protein noted above back into the stew, which is the main reason I don’t favor bread crumbs. Kate Hill believes that bread crumbs are for doctoring up canned cassoulet (which I didn’t know existed and don’t know why anyone would bother). But another estimable cook, writer, and expat in France, David Lebovitz, says that bread crumbs “are for those of us who don’t have a wood oven and/or who like crunchy toppings.” And who doesn’t like a crunchy topping? So, if that is your preference, I’d recommend adding them toward the end of the cooking, allowing just long enough for them to soak up the broth and brown. But for this version, I’m sticking with Kate: no bread crumbs.
Once you have all your components, there are three main steps to the cassoulet: cooking the beans, browning the meat, and then cooking the cassoulet. I recommend cooking the beans a day or two ahead as it makes cassoulet day more convenient and enjoyable.
Remember that this dish is about the beans and that beans are half about the broth. The broth is fantastic plain (see Magic Beans), but here we load up the cooking water with lots of aromatics and one smoky hock. It’s a good idea to reserve 1 to 1½ cups/240 to 360 milliliters of the broth to bring hot to the table to ensure that the cassoulet is moist and juicy; I find that when you reach for the inevitable seconds, the beans have absorbed most of the juices as the pot has rested. The following recipe is for eight people, but to decrease or increase that number, plan on ½ cup/100 grams dried beans per person.