Lazy Chicken-and-Sausage Cassoulet
Cassoulet ranks as one of French Provincial cooking’s most iconic recipes, and it’s one I've been besotted with since I was young cook. My first encounter with the regional classic (broadly described as a hearty casserole of beans, various meats, sausages, and poultry) was in the writings of Richard Olney and Elizabeth David. These legendary food writers portrayed the dish with such passion and poeticism that my 23-year-old self actually made a pilgrimage to southwest France just to eat it in situ—and, I dared hope, to unlock the secret to making great cassoulet at home.
For more than a week, I travelled around Languedoc and Gascony voraciously tasting my way through versions that ranged from sumptuous feasts (crowded with duck confit, goose, sausage, pork belly, pork trotters, lamb breast, lamb stew, and game meats) to deliciously modest examples (no more than pork-studded bean casseroles baked under crunchy breadcrumb crusts). In the end, the infinite variety far outlasted my appetite—and my travel budget. I returned home with the understanding that there is no single best cassoulet, and, perhaps more importantly, I felt free to adapt this rustic dish to suit my own appetite and cooking routines.
In the decades since my cassoulet quest, my fondness for this meat-enriched bean gratin has not wavered, and I continually play around with various formulas and techniques. But the version I crave most remains the simplest: one that I can get on the dinner table in under an hour. I start with boneless, skinless chicken thighs (unless I have leftover roast chicken, which works great, too). If I have duck fat on hand, I use it to sauté the chicken for an extra flavor boost (and because that's the fat most used in southwest France), but any neutral-tasting oil will do. Either way, the chicken should be tender, cooked through, and well-seasoned. Then it's a matter of sautéing an onion, a healthy amount of garlic, and a heap of smoked sausage to create a flavor base that will carry through the entire dish. A bit of tomato paste ups the umami quotient, and a splash of white wine contributes just enough acid to balance the richness.
From there, everything gets gently folded together with cooked white beans (canned or home-cooked), spread in a shallow dish (either a gratin or a heavy skillet), topped with breadcrumbs, and baked until bubbling hot on the inside and crunchy-golden on top. Add a green salad, and you've got one of the most enduring and satisfying bean-and-meat dishes ever.