Soul-satisfying cassoulet pairs perfectly with local brews

Slow-Cooked Beans and Beer

by Brian Ricci

Winter brings an excess of darkness and chills. It invites us to stay indoors and gather to share a meal. You might want to read a book for a while and catch a nap—either way: Before you do, read this, go shopping and start your cassoulet. 

Ultimately, this can be used as a wonderful centerpiece for a dinner party, and the work is all done in advance. The overlapping scents and aromas of roasting meats, garlic and beans will welcome your guests. Sample your cassoulet as it cooks, and in between, sit back on your favorite chair and finish that book. Don’t forget to have a beer while you’re at it. You can go outside tomorrow.

What’s cassoulet?
Cassoulet is a dish of braised beans and pork that originated in the Languedoc region of the South of France. Traditionally, navy beans were used, along with pork rinds and sausages. Others protest and insist cassoulet must consist of beans, bacon, lard and pulled goose meat: Therein lies an age-old dispute. 

Ultimately, the divergence can be tied specifically to what grows locally and can benefit from the slow-cooking process. Regions in France claim superiority in regard to cassoulet, much in the same way Philadelphians may feel about a particular cheesesteak. It may seem a negative; however, since there is no empirical right way to make cassoulet, then, for us, there can be no wrong notes.

The beans and beer
Again, the key is using what we can get locally, using the same logic as the folks who cultivated this dish in France. Let’s examine our main component: the bean. Traditionally, that’s the navy bean, a medium-sized white bean that we can find in any grocery store—dry or canned. It’s great and versatile, but I urge you to seek out less common varieties of bean. Dry runner beans are my favorite for this application; I can find varieties like scarlet, polestar and painted lady. I rely on William Woys Weaver’s Roughwood Seed Collection in Wayne, Pennsylvania, for a wide variety of dry beans. He’s a noted food historian, author and gardener whose knowledge in this area is unparalleled. All beans will require an overnight soak or a “quick soak” before we can use them in the recipe. This recipe will also use beer, and I’d suggest a local saison or pale ale.

The meat
I recommend using garlic sausages, duck thighs and bacon ends for your cassoulet. The combination will impart a great variety of flavor and texture to the dish. Reading Terminal Market is an excellent jumping off point for a dish like this. Try out La Divisa, which can provide exceptional, humanely raised meats, charcuterie and service; the shop is about to have a meat counter at the Fair Food Farmstand, which can help with rounding out much of the rest of your shopping list. Alternatively, consider Green Aisle Grocery (locations in East Passyunk, Graduate Hospital and Fishtown), which carries loads of
local products.

Ingredients
Serves 6 to 8

To make the beans:

  • 1 pound dry runner beans
  • 1 good piece of bacon end
  • 1 large onion, peeled and sliced into halves
  • 1 carrot, cut into large pieces
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • A handful of fresh herbs—thyme, bay, rosemary, parsley—use what you like, and make sure to tie them in a bundle to keep track of their whereabouts
  • 1 to 2 pounds of garlic sausages, sliced in 1-inch pieces

To make the cassoulet:

  • 1 pound of pork shoulder, boneless, diced
  • 2 pounds of confit duck thighs, pulled from the bone in small chunks
  • 3 onions, medium diced
  • 3 tablespoons of tomato paste
  • 12 ounces of beer, saison or pale ale recommended
  • 1/2 pound duck or pork fat
  • More herbs, bundled 
  • White breadcrumbs to form a crust

Directions

  1. Soak the dry beans overnight in water. Drain and place them in a pot with the bacon end, the onion, carrot, garlic and herb bundle. Cover with water. Simmer until the beans are tender but not splitting. At the end, add the garlic sausages to stiffen them gently. You can do this stovetop or in the oven at about 350 F. Drain the beans and reserve them and the liquid, bacon and sausages for later. Once it’s off the heat, add salt and pepper.
  2. In a large sauté pan, gently cook the diced onion until it’s melted, add the pork and duck and raise the heat to brown the meats while being careful not to burn them. Pour off excess fat, add the tomato paste and set the heat to low. Add the beer, and season with salt and pepper. Continue cooking until half the beer is absorbed.
  3. In a large braising dish, place the reserved bacon, then half of the beans, followed by the pork and duck mixture—spread this thoroughly. Next, add the sausages, followed by the rest of the beans, the second herb bundle and about a pint of the bean liquid. Top this with a 1/2-inch layer of breadcrumbs and dot with the duck or pork fat. Place into a 320 F oven for about 1½  hours. The breadcrumbs will form a great crust, which should be broken with a spoon while it cooks. Top the cassoulet with more breadcrumbs each time.

Pair It With Beer

  1. Yards Philadelphia Pale Ale. Crisp and citrusy. America’s greatest pale ale.
  2. St. Benjamin’s Liaison Saison. An approachable, dry saison that offers peppercorn and lavender notes.
  3. Draai Laag’s R2 Koelschip. Local, wild yeast creates sour notes for this Belgian-style farmhouse ale.

Brian Ricci is a chef living and working in Philadelphia.