Duck Breasts with White Beans and Sausage: The comfort of cassoulet, only quicker

by Terry B on November 10, 2010

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.

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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.

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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
Serves 4

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.

Kitchen Notes

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.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Mrs Dirty Boots November 10, 2010 at 10:48 am

Nice recipe. I do love long slow cooked stews but quicker versions are something I’m always keen to try as they are often far more practical.
We have some similar versions here in Spain usually with the ubiquitous chorizo but I guess chicken would be more appropriate with that. The lamb sounds delicious though!

B November 10, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Ahhh! love French food and the many variations of it. It’s been years since I’ve had duck, so this is a recipe I am excited to try. I noticed the recipe serves 4, but it’s just my husband and I. Can you tell me how long this dish will stay fresh in the fridge? Just yesterday, my cousin was telling me about a site that she uses to check out how long food lasts. It’s called shelflifeadvice.com. I think it will be a great idea for you to maybe start working with so you can list the shelf life of foods with your recipes. That will be sooo helpful! :-)

Terry B November 10, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Thanks, Mrs Dirty Boots! And if you like Spanish chorizo, you should check out my Patatas Riojanas recipe from last week.

B—Actually, even though it serves four, I made it just for Marion and me the other night. We’re looking forward to leftovers tonight or tomorrow. Another favorite thing to do with leftovers is take them for lunch the next day or so. For this dish—and for most leftovers with meat—I’d say you’re safe keeping them in the fridge for three or four days. This dish would also freeze well, and you can thaw it in the fridge, then reheat it in a covered pan in a low oven.

My Man's Belly November 11, 2010 at 7:36 pm

Cassoulet is one of my all time favorites but I don’t make it much because it takes so long. I really like your recipe since it doesn’t take as long which means I can have it more often. Yay!

Laura November 12, 2010 at 3:03 am

Oh yum…every dish you describe here sounds like what I want to be eating these days. And I love how you are always thinking about cooking even when enjoying a gorgeous meal in Portland! A caterer friend of my mom’s buys roast duck from chinatown to throw into her cassoulet rather than confit things…

Terry B November 12, 2010 at 5:50 am

I hope you like this quicker riff on cassoulet, My Man’s Belly. And just so you know, the leftovers were even better.

What a great idea, Laura! I’ll have to remember it next time we’re in Chinatown. And yes, food blogging has made searching restaurant meals for inspiration an occupational hazard, but it actually enhances the dining experience.

John Hobson November 14, 2010 at 5:57 pm

I’ve made something similar, without the duck breasts. Navy beans or great northern beans work just as well as the cannellini beans. I have no trouble finding canned cannellini beans, but dried cannellini beans are hard to find.

You might try adding some tomato paste to the dish

Denise Michaels - Adventurous Foodie November 15, 2010 at 12:30 am

Love the idea of a Cassoulet that doesn’t take all the time of the classic country French dish. Wonder if I can find something like lamb sausage for this? Cannelini beans are available pretty much anywhere.

My Mom used to make a very German inspired dish (though her roots are French) with sauerkraut, apple wedges and different kind of sausages all cooked together in a casserole in the oven or in a crock pot.

Terry B November 15, 2010 at 3:41 pm

John—You’re right, any kind of white beans works fine for this. If I were making true cassoulet, I would probably opt for smaller beans such as the navy or great northern. And tomato paste is an ingredient that often shows up in cassoulet too, but here I wasn’t going for a saucy, soupy dish, so I gave it a skip.

Denise—Any kind of sausage you find would work well here. Pork is often a key cassoulet ingredient, so you could try some kind of pork sausage as well. And your mother’s dish sounds delicious—you should try to revive that somehow!

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