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On th­ese cold, dark, mis­er­able win­ter days, noth­ing warms body and soul like a big, bub­bling pot of cas­soulet. “It’s just one of those ul­ti­mate com­fort foods,” says To­bias Grignon, ex­ec­u­tive chef at Bistro Pastis and Le Parisien restau­rants in Van­cou­ver. “On a cold day, it sticks to your ribs. It’s so full of flavour and it’s very nour­ish­ing. It warms you right to your bones.”

Cas­soulet is ba­si­cally a very rich and savoury baked bean dish that is loaded with cured meats — ba­con, sausage and duck or goose con­fit — and, de­pend­ing on the recipe you fol­low, per­haps some roast lamb or pork.

It orig­i­nated in the south­west of France, in the Langue­doc re­gion, and there is much heated de­bate over whether it came from Toulouse, Car­cas­sone, or the small town of Castel­naudary, which claims to be the world cap­i­tal of cas­soulet.

In fact, Castel­naudary in­sists the bean dish was first served there dur­ing the siege of 1355, when de­fend­ers had to im­pro­vise with what lit­tle food they could find. It’s a ro­man­tic story, though sadly, un­likely to be true. What is true, though, is that Castel­naudary is home to The Brother­hood of the Uni­ver­sal Cas­soulet Academy, and hosts a cas­soulet fes­ti­val each Au­gust.

“Cas­soulet came from a very small place for such a big claim to fame,” says Chris­tine van der Lieck, who, along with her hus­band John, owns Oyama Sausage in Van­cou­ver. They hold their own cas­soulet fes­ti­val each Novem­ber and, it too, has be­come fa­mous in its own small way.

“Ini­tially, we started it be­cause Novem­ber is very slow, and why not?” she says. “Now it’s be­come an icon and peo­ple start phon­ing us in Septem­ber. We dream beans for weeks af­ter­wards,” she adds with a laugh.

This year, in ad­di­tion to the con­fit and sausages that are avail­able year round, Oyama Sausage also plans to sell the bean stew base through­out the win­ter be­cause, as much as we love cas­soulet, it isn’t ex­actly the sort of dish we can whip up af­ter a long day at the of­fice.

“Don’t bother. Buy ours. Make your life easy,” van der Lieck says.

Look up any of the tra­di­tional recipes and you’ll see what she means.

Ju­lia Child, for in­stance, sug­gests you make your own sausage and goose con­fit, add a roast pork loin and cook the beans with pork rind that you cut with shears. Anne Wil­lan in­sists you in­clude two kinds of roasted lamb and boil the ba­con to re­move any salt be­fore adding it to the beans.

As for the beans, Grignon says, “They prob­a­bly have bar room brawls over the right beans to use in that re­gion.”

Ac­cord­ing to tra­di­tion, cas­soulet was made with a plump and creamy lo­cal white bean called “hari­cot Tar­bais” that is seek­ing EU pro­tected sta­tus. (Cannellini, Great North­ern, navy or fla­geo­let beans also work just fine, though.)

Each week through­out the Langue­doc, vil­lage women would mix those plen­ti­ful white beans with meaty leftovers in a big earth­en­ware pot called a “cas­sole,” which, of course, is where the name “cas­soulet” orig­i­nated. Then they’d take their pots of beans down to the com­mu­nal oven and pop them in af­ter the weekly bread was baked. That was then. But even with all to­day’s mod­ern con­ve­niences, cas­soulet is still at least a two-day project, more if you plan to make your own duck con­fit, which is time con­sum­ing, but a lot eas­ier than you might think.

“It’s sim­ple,” says Grignon. “It’s a two-day process, but it’s only 20 min­utes of work.”

Aside from that, he says, “un­less you’re mak­ing cas­soulet for a real afi­cionado from the re­gion, you can skip 80 per cent of the steps. There’s a lot of dif­fer­ent ways to get the same re­sults.”

That’s what he’s done for the cas­soulet he serves year round at Le Parisien and at Bistro Pastis in the win­ter months.

And, he says, “They love it. Peo­ple love the cas­soulet.”

When I de­cided to make a cas­soulet for a din­ner party, I had no idea what I was get­ting my­self into. But af­ter read­ing dozens of recipes, many of them five or six pages long and each more com­pli­cated than the last, I was thor­oughly con­fused, and more than a lit­tle bit in­tim­i­dated.

Luck­ily, I turned to To­bias Grignon, ex­ec­u­tive chef at Bistro Pastis and Le Parisien, who pointed out that most of those tra­di­tional recipes were devel­oped for a re­gion with very dif­fer­ent in­gre­di­ents and cook­ing styles. I mean, when’s the last time you took a pot of beans down to the com­mu­nal oven?

As it turns out, mak­ing a cas­soulet isn’t dif­fi­cult, but it does in­volve a num­ber of steps that can take time. To make it eas­ier, we’ve bro­ken them down here so you can plan your shop­ping and cook­ing.

One to two weeks be­fore you plan to serve the cas­soulet: Make the duck con­fit, keep­ing in mind that it is at least a two-day process. Note that you can al­ways skip this step and pur­chase pre­pared duck con­fit in­stead.

Two days be­fore: Soak the beans overnight.

The day be­fore: Make the bean stew, then al­low it to rest overnight.

Three to four hours be­fore: Pre­pare the meats.

Two to 2 ½ hours be­fore: As­sem­ble the cas­soulet. Pre­heat the oven.

About 10 to 20 min­utes be­fore din­ner: Top cas­soulet with bread­crumbs (op­tional).

Serve the cas­soulet: Pair it with a bold red wine like a Cotes du Rous­sil­lon Vil­lages or a re­fresh­ing beer like a Czech Pil­sner, along with a crisp green salad dressed in a sim­ple vinai­grette. chunks and set aside.

Pre­heat oven to 400 F (200 C).

Pre­pare the meats: Cut the ba­con slabs into bite-sized pieces and set aside. Cook the duck con­fit in a large fry­ing pan un­til skin crisps; set aside. Then, us­ing the same pan, cook the sausages in the duck fat from the con­fit; set aside.

As­sem­ble the cas­soulet: Place the beans in a large casse­role dish, prefer­ably earth­en­ware. Scat­ter the ba­con on top and press into the beans so the pieces are well dis­trib­uted. Ar­range the sausages at­trac­tively on top, press­ing them into the bean stew a lit­tle so the flavours mesh nicely.

Do the same with the whole duck legs. Al­ter­na­tively, you can re­move the duck meat from the bones and place it on top of the beans be­fore you add the sausages; this isn’t as dra­matic a pre­sen­ta­tion, but makes it eas­ier to serve to a crowd.

Place the casse­role into the hot oven and bake for 90 min­utes to two hours. The cas­soulet should de­velop a nice, crusty brown layer with a thick sauce bub­bling and brown­ing around the rim of the casse­role dish.

Op­tional: You can also add ad­di­tional tex­ture by cook­ing the bread­crumbs in the fat and then sprin­kling the mix­ture evenly on top of the cas­soulet 10 to 20 min­utes be­fore it is ready to come out of the oven. Bake un­til the crumbs are crisp and golden brown.

Serve the hot cas­soulet im­me­di­ately, ide­ally paired with a crisp green salad and bold red wine or lager-style beer.

Serves 10 to 12.

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