Duck Breasts with White Beans and Sausage combines many of the comforting elements of cassoulet, but comes together fast enough for a weeknight dinner. Recipe below.
French cooking is usually thought of as elegant and refined. And indeed, it’s no accident that the term that defines high-end dining, haute cuisine, is French. But fancy isn’t all they do. When it comes to comfort food, few can outcomfort the French. Hanger steaks with frites, coq au vin, gratins filled with cream and covered in cheese…
And perhaps the most comforting of French comfort foods, cassoulet. A hearty baked stew of beans and various meats (usually pork and duck and maybe lamb) and crusted with bread crumbs, cassoulet sticks to the ribs and satisfies your very soul on a chilly night. Unfortunately, cooking it takes forever. Recipes vary, but baking time is always measured in multiple hours, usually with at least an hour or two of prep time up front. And if you make your own duck confit for it, you can tack on another day or two.
So we were really excited when a dinner in Portland, Oregon, on our recent trip to the Pacific Northwest got us thinking about ways capture some of the flavors of cassoulet without all the long cooking.
There is no shortage of good food in Portland, and we found our fair share of it. But the standout meal for us there was at Clyde Common, a place their own website modestly describes as a “European style tavern serving delicious food and drinks.” Clyde Common is part of a new trend in food—amazing, simply prepared, locally sourced gourmet meals served in casual publike settings. Most of the seating in the high-ceilinged, rough hewn industrial space is at long communal tables. And the bar, named one of the best in America by Esquire magazine, adds a noisy, lively energy. But the food is definitely the star.
We weren’t even thinking of cassoulet when we ordered the braised lamb shoulder dish with merguez sausage, beans and bread crumbs on the menu that night. But it suddenly occurred to us that this beautiful rustic meal had many elements in common with the iconic French dish. A generous helping of well seasoned white beans, a mix of rich meats, the satisfying crunch of toasted bread crumbs… Between bites, Marion and I began mapping out how I might mash up a dish inspired by cassoulet and this stellar meal.
I started by going back to duck, one of the key ingredients of classic cassoulet. But I chose quick-cooking duck breasts over time-consuming (but admittedly delicious) confitted duck legs. I further sped things up with canned beans, a convenience that even Mark Bittman has been reluctantly rethinking. The resulting dish was neither cassoulet nor the lovely Clyde Common dinner. It was something wonderful in its own right, comforting, satisfying and restaurant good.
Duck Breasts with White Beans and Sausage
1 cup panko (or other bread crumbs—see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 boneless duck breasts (1 to 1-1/2 pounds total)
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 sausages, about 1/2 pound (see Kitchen Notes)
2 small shallots, chopped, about 1/2 cup (you can substitute yellow onion)
1 medium carrot, diced
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 cup white wine
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Toast bread crumbs. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-low flame. Add olive oil to pan, swirl to coat. Add panko and toss to coat with oil. Toast until golden brown, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a shallow bowl or plate and allow to cool completely. You can toast the panko a day ahead and, after it’s cooled, store it at room temperature in an airtight container.
Preheat oven to 400ºF. Pat duck breasts dry with paper towels and trim off any excess fat. Score skin in a crosshatch pattern at 1/2-inch intervals with a sharp knife, being careful not to slice through the flesh. Season with salt and black pepper on both sides. Heat a 12-inch ovenproof lidded sauté pan over medium-low heat. Place duck breasts, skin side down, in the hot, dry skillet. Cook the breasts until the skin is crispy and most of the fat has rendered, about 10 to 12 minutes. Turn duck breasts and cook the non-skin side for 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate and tent with foil.
Pour off all but one tablespoon of the duck fat in the skillet and reserve for another use. Sauté shallots and carrot in duck fat for 3 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Add sausages to the pan and continue cooking another 5 minutes, turning sausages once. Add garlic and thyme to pan and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Add wine and broth to pan, stirring to scrape up any browned bits. Add bay leaves and cannellini beans and bring to a boil.
Return duck breasts to skillet, along with any accumulated juices. Cover pan and transfer to oven. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes (or longer, if needed), until an instant-read thermometer inserted diagonally into center registers 125°F for medium rare (unlike chicken, this is perfectly safe—and delicious). Remove from the oven. Transfer breasts and sausages to cutting board, tent with foil and allow to rest for about 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, place uncovered pan over medium flame to slightly reduce liquid and concentrate flavors. Taste and adjust seasonings (use a light hand—the duck and the sausage will provide some saltiness). Slice duck breasts into 1/3 to 1/2-inch slices. Slice sausages in half, on a diagonal. Using a slotted spoon, divide bean mixture among 4 serving plates. You want them fairly well drained at this point; unlike cassoulet, this is not a wet dish. Sprinkle each plate with a generous amount of panko (you will have some left over, and that’s fine). Place one piece of sausage on each plate and fan 3 to 4 duck breast slices on top of beans. Serve.
Panko? Baguette? Certainly traditional French cassoulet has gotten along just fine without the Japanese bread crumbs loved by many chefs. But panko tends to be lighter and crunchier than other bread crumbs—and they tend to maintain that crispiness even when sprinkled over cooked foods. But feel free to use whatever white bread or bread crumbs you have on hand.
Get creative with the sausage. We happened to find some lamb sausages from a local butcher shop. You can use the fanciest artisanal sausages or plain old kielbasa. Just don’t go crazy with the flavored or spicy sausages. Or do—your call. If you’re using fresh, uncured sausage that contains pork, just make sure it’s cooked to an internal temperature of about 150ºF before serving; you can let it finish cooking with the beans while the duck breasts rest, if necessary.