There are some Wisconsin recipes that just get passed around and seem to show up in numerous places. One such recipe is Sandy Hillmer’s Wisconsin Cassoulet. Ever since it won Parade magazine’s “Best One Pot Meal” contest in 1996 it has been published in numerous magazines, cookbooks, and newspapers. A simple Google search for “Wisconsin Cassoulet” yields hundreds of results.
For those who don’t know what cassoulet is, its casserole/stew rooted in French country cooking. Wikipedia defines it as “a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole originating in the southwest of France, containing meat (typically pork sausages, pork, goose, duck and sometimes mutton), pork skin and white haricot beans.” One of the best ones I ever tasted was from Les Halles in New York (its also featured in Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook). That one was loaded with duck confit, pork belly, and merguez sausage, a slightly spicy lamb sausage. I believe Michael Ruhlman called it a “a monument to fat” in a recent episode of Bourdain’s No Reservations.
I had a chance to ask Sandy Hilmer via e-mail about her recipe and how it was developed. According to her it started with the 1996 Parade magazine ‘One Pot Meal’ contest. She explained that she had been experimenting with this bean stew recipe and every time she made it, she would would add a little something more – until it was perfect. She explained that the chicken breast and pork tenderloin were intended to keep it healthy and the kielbasa was used to add flavor.
Sandy entered the recipe into that contest and was declared one of the winners of the ‘Very Best One Pot Meal’ contest out of thousands of entrants. Shelia Lukins, editor of the Parade Magazine food section at the time, called her and asked some questions about the recipe and then asked her for permission to publish it in her “USA Cookbook,” which is where I found it. According to Sandy Hillmer, the recipe has been published in more cookbooks and publications than she could list. It also won an award and was published in Usingers ‘Cooking with the Elves’ Cookbook. That’s a testament to a good recipe.
I made the recipe last winter and I am going to make it one of these weekends (which is how I got started on this post). It was very easy and very good. The only deviation in cooking method is that I like to finish the cassoulet in the oven to get a nice crusty top on it like most French recipes call for. Some recipes just let the beans form a crust while others add some breadcrumbs mixed with herbs like parsley or thyme to form a more hearty crust. I asked Sandy about any tweaks she has made. She says she is now using center cut bacon to cut back on fat. Now that I think about it a smoked turkey leg would probably give it the smoky bacon flavor and cut even more fat, if that is your goal. She is also working on an adaptation for the crock pot. She seemed somewhat interested in placing it in the oven to form the crust.
Cassoulet is not unlike other one pot meals like gumbo or chili; each user is free to add or subtract whatever they want to the recipe to personalize it. Like chili and gumbo it is one of those dishes that, as Sandy Hillmer says “is very comforting to make. Soaking the beans, chopping the meats and vegetables, browning, simmering and stirring. And all the while the house fills with such an amazing smell. It makes a generous amount so it’s perfect for entertaining or enjoying the leftovers all week long! It also freezes beautifully. It’s very good with a loaf of homemade cheese beer bread or a sourdough baguette.”
Cassoulet is a perfect dish to use up leftovers like turkey, chicken, or even some bratwurst you grilled the night before. This article from the New York Sun explains the appeal of cassoulet in a much better manner than I could describe. In the article different chefs explain how the dish varies from region to region depending on what is available. Given its propensity to feature local ingredients in France, this dish is great way to showcase some excellent Wisconsin products too. Here are some suggested changes:
Use Nueske’s Bacon or a bacon made by your local butcher.
Try to get pork and chicken from local producers (in season many farmer’s markets have a meat vendor, if not try Savor Wisconsin’s website). I have purchased pork from Greek Acres farms at the Waukesha Farmer’s market that blows away any of the stuff you find at most supermarkets.
Use Wisconsin Maple Syrup (please don’t use that mass-produced crap like Log Cabin or Mrs. Butterworth’s).
I would like to thank Sandy Hillmer for answering some of my questions about her recipe. Sandy runs a multi-faceted business called Heartland Chef that includes personal chef service, menu planning, and cooking classes. More details can be found on her website. Sandy also has a blog of her own, which can be found on the Oak Creek Now website.
Since the recipe can be found all over the web I figured I would post it here too:
WISCONSIN CASSOULET (from Sandy Hillmer’s Heartland Chef website)
Serves 8 -10
1 lb. dry navy beans
4 celery tops
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs flat Italian parsley
1/4 lb. bacon, chopped, divided
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 small pork tenderloin, cubed
3 chicken breasts, skinned, boned and cubed
3/4 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
3/4 cup chopped carrots
1/3 cup pure maple syrup
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3 cups chicken broth
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 can (28 ounces) Italian plum tomatoes, coarsely chopped, undrained
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon savory
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon dry mustard
2 tablespoons chopped flat Italian Parsley
1/4 teaspoon cracked pepper
1/2 lb. Kielbasa sausage, cut into 1 ½” pieces
salt to taste
*Soak beans overnight; drain and place beans in soup pot, add water to cover.
*Add celery tops, bay leaves and parsley.
*Simmer for 30 minutes. Remove celery. In sauté pan brown bacon, set aside.
*In same pan, brown cubed pork and chicken with 2 tablespoons olive oil; set aside
*Add to pan and brown celery, carrots and onion in the remaining 2 tablespoons oil.
*To bean pot add cooked meats and vegetables, bacon, chicken broth, garlic, tomatoes, syrup, brown sugar and dried spices.
*Simmer 1 hour. Add Kielbasa and simmer 1 hour longer or until beans are cooked.
*Remove parsley sprigs and bay leaves.
*Stir in chopped parsley and season with salt
If you want the crusty exterior that I described, bake in a 350 degree oven until the crust begins to form (about 45 minutes). To speed this up, mix breadcrumbs and chopped parsley together in a bowl, sprinkle over cassoulet and bake until it becomes golden brown and crusty. You could probably turn the broiler on and speed it up even more, just make sure it doesn’t burn.