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Confit of Duck Breast and Sausage Cassoulet

1 pound dried Great Northern beans
4 or 5 boned duck breast halves (2 to 2 1/2 lb. total)
About 2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 pound thick-sliced bacon, chopped
2 onions (about 1 lb. total), peeled and chopped
5 cloves garlic, peeled and minced or pressed
3 cups fat-skimmed chicken broth
3/4 cup dry red wine such as Beaujolais Nouveau or Zinfandel
1 firm-ripe tomato (about 1/2 lb. ), rinsed, cored, and chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 dried bay leaf
1/2 pound garlic sausages, sliced 1/2 inch thick
Duck cracklings
Thyme sprigs, rinsed

Sort beans and discard debris. Rinse beans, drain, and put into a 5- to 6-quart pan with 4 quarts water. Bring to a boil over high heat, cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 1 hour. Drain beans, discarding liquid; if making up to 1 day ahead, cover and chill. Put beans in a 4 1/2-quart or larger electric slow cooker.

Meanwhile, pull and cut skin from duck breasts; reserve skin for cracklings (cover and chill up to 1 day). Place breasts in a bowl. Add 2 tablespoons salt and the sugar, and mix; cover and chill at least 30 minutes but no longer than 1 hour. Rinse breasts well under cool running water; if making up to 1 day ahead, cover and chill. Cut meat into 1/2-inch chunks.

In a 10- to 12-inch frying pan over medium-high heat, frequently stir bacon until browned and crisp, about 5 minutes. Discard all but 1 tablespoon bacon drippings. Add onions and garlic to bacon; stir often until onions begin to brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Add broth and wine; bring to a boil over high heat, scraping up browned bits from pan bottom. Pour onion-broth mixture into slow cooker with beans. Add tomato, chopped thyme, pepper, and bay leaf; mix. Place duck pieces on the beans.

Cover and cook until beans and duck are very tender to bite, 5 to 6 hours on low, 4 to 5 hours on high. If there is more liquid than desired, uncover slow cooker, turn heat to high, and simmer to concentrate the mixture, up to 30 minutes.

Stir sausage slices into cassoulet and cook until hot, 5 to 10 minutes. Ladle cassoulet into bowls, sprinkle equally with duck cracklings, and garnish with thyme sprigs.

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