Some people drool over Neiman-Marcus catalogs filled with designer clothes and $600 shoes. My guilty pleasure is cookware catalogs abrim with pricey pots and clever gadgets.
I always make time to thumb through the Williams-Sonoma catalog even though I rarely can afford anything on its glossy pages. That’s how I ran across Thomas Keller’s slow-cooker cassoulet, photographed temptingly in All-Clad’s shiny, deluxe slow cooker ($279.95, gasp, plus tax and shipping), last week.
Keller, of course, is All-Clad’s celebrity chef spokesman. He’s paid to tout their products, which always are top of the line with prices to match. On the other hand, he’s the man who turned The French Laundry into arguably the best restaurant in the country. His palate is pitch perfect.
If Keller was willing to put his name on a slow cooker cassoulet recipe, I felt compelled to try it.
First, a caveat: I’m not going to get into a debate about whether it’s possible to make a “real cassoulet” this way. People are passionate on the subject of this traditional French peasant dish of meats and beans. Some argue it can’t be made properly outside of Languedoc, where it originated.
Let’s just stipulate that this variation is a sincere tribute to that tradition – deeply flavorful and soul-satisfying in it’s own right.
For the record, too, I’m not a fan of slow cookers. I view them as convenient but very limited appliances, best suited to fairly simple foods. In my experience, flavors seem to leach out of many dishes after many hours of slow simmering. There’s no way I would spend $300 on one, no matter how shiny.
So the old 4-quart Rival with the ceramic crock insert that I keep around to make tomato sauce in the summer would have to do. That required some adjustment in the recipe, which is written for a 7-quart cooker with a non-stick aluminum insert.
Keller builds layers of flavor that slowly meld into an incredibly savory, rib-sticking dish by toasting panko crumbs, browning the pork shoulder, frying the bacon, sauteing the onions and reducing the wine in the insert on top of the stove. This initial preparation is what sets this dish apart from most slow cooker recipes. I employed a heavy 12-inch skillet for the critical steps.
Tradition calls for the meats and beans to be cooked separately, then combined in a clay casserole and baked uncovered until the top is brown and crusty. Instead, Keller slowly simmers the browned meat and white beans together until both are tender – about seven hours.
To compensate for my smaller cooker, I halved the recipe. I also introduced a couple of duck legs in confit that I had stashed in the freezer and a few sprigs of thyme in the last hour of cooking in hopes of picking up a little extra flavor.
Because there was so little liquid in the original recipe, I added an extra cup of chicken stock for good measure. That proved unnecessary in the end, but I’d still hold a cup of stock in reserve just in case the beans get too dry.
As a finishing touch, Keller layers baguette slices over the top of the cassoulet and pops the insert under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the bread. It’s an artful solution to the major shortcoming of this recipe – the lack of a wonderfully crusty, golden brown top. I toasted the bread separately and served it alongside the gutsy, garlicky stew. But then presentation is not really my forte.
Flavor was not the issue I had feared. Keller has a sure hand and this dish was so hearty, I didn’t miss the usual bouquet of herbs. The tomatoes added a welcome bit of acidity that cut through the fat rendered from the meat and crunchy panko crumbs lightly bound it all together.
It was just as good the next day, when I warmed the leftovers in the oven for half an hour in a casserole topped with more panko crumbs.
Even so, this will never be a recipe to impress foodie friends who wax philosophical about the necessity of French tarbais beans or the perfect saucisse de Toulouse for an authentic cassoulet. It’s just not exotic enough for bragging rights. Still it’s perfect for anyone craving true winter comfort food with an intoxicating aroma and rich flavors.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Thomas Keller knows what he’s doing.
1½ pounds boneless pork shoulder, cut into 4 pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ tablespoon canola ol
½ cup panko (see Note)
2 slices thick-cut bacon, slice crosswise into ½-inch strips
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped (about 2 cups)
1 cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon blanc
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 can (14.5 ounces) chopped tomatoes, drained
1½ cups chicken broth
1½ cups dried Great Northern beans, soaked overnight
½ pound fresh chorizo sausage, cut diagonally in 2-inch lengths
½ garlic head, sliced in half horizontally
2 duck legs in confit, separated at the thigh joint (optional)
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme (optional)
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leafed parsley, plus more for garnish
½ pound baguette, sliced ½-inch thick
Extra virgin olive oil for brushing
Coarse sea salt for garnish
Season pork shoulder pieces with salt and pepper and set aside. Warm canola oil in a large skillet over medium high heat and add panko, stirring, until bread crumbs are golden brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer panko to a plate to cool and season with salt and pepper.
In the same pan, cook bacon until crisp. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon, drain on paper towels and reserve for later. Leave bacon fat in the pan, add the pork shoulder pieces and brown well on all sides. Transfer to a plate. Reduce heat under pan to medium and add onions and 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Saute, stirring often, until onions are softened and golden brown. Add wine and simmer until reduced by half. This should take about 8 minutes. Stir tomato paste, chopped tomatoes and 1 cup of chicken broth into the onion and wine mixture.
Place browned pork in slow cooker insert. Drain beans and add. Top with sliced sausage and garlic. Pour onion, wine, tomato and broth mixture from skillet over all and stir gently. Cover and cook on low setting for about 7 hours. An hour before the cassoulet should be ready, add duck and thyme sprigs, if using. The dish is done when the beans are tender all the way through and pork can be pulled apart with a fork.
Skim off fat and remove garlic. Stir in panko and 2 tablespoons chopped parsley. Turn off heat.
Brush baquette slices with olive oil, place on baking sheet and brown under broiler.
Serve cassoulet hot, garnished with reserved bacon and additional parsley, and accompanied by toasted bread.
Note: Panko are crunchy, Japanese-style dried breadcrumbs now available widely in supermarkets.
Adapted from a recipe by Thomas Keller for All-Clad