Posted by: A Part of the Solution | February 26, 2010

I’ve got a Cassoulet… and I’m not afraid to eat it!

Actually, I don’t have a cassoulet. I will in a few more hours. And it will be worth every moment of preparation. It will be worth every minute it cooks stove-top and braises in the oven. It will be worth the effort; because the effort isn’t too much for winter food this warming and this filling and this satisfying.

The navy beans I’m using are old. They aren’t flageolets or beans of Soissons, the classic varietals for this dish. But they are what I had on the shelf. And one of the secrets of good cassoulet is to make it out of the food on hand. Long shopping trips to out-of-the-way stores for expensive ingredients are diametrically opposed to the cassoulet tradition.

Before Craig Claiborne, Martha Stewart et al. got their hands on this recipe, it was honest country cooking in the strictest meaning of the term. Like ‘sugo’ in an Italian home, cassoulets are composed of what any household’s staple pantry foods tend to be. And like ‘sugo’, no two are ever alike–even those made in the same village on adjoining properties. Real cassoulet is not recipe based. Real cassoulet is what necessity dictates it should be.

In some parts of France, goose is required for the recipe. In others, adding any form of poultry is still considered anathema. In still others, the bird is welcome but mutton is never part of the picture. Sausage is in every recipe, but you could start a riot trying to get a bar full of people in France to agree on what kind and how much and when in the process it should be included. You’ll always find a version to disagree with whatever one you may adopt.

Beans, white or light green, are the base for all that follows. Pork in at least two forms is universally approved. Aromatics in with the beans while they simmer are standard. But should one include minced onion in the second stage of cooking, where the meats are added to the nearly finished beans? And what about the New World tomato or its paste?

I’ve seen wine in some recipes. I’ve seen stock recommended. I’ve seen breadcrumbs, and even croutons, on the must have list. And I’ve seen versions without some or any of the above. If you’re beginning to feel confused or anxious, instead of indignant and exasperated, then you don’t have a French granny who showed you from when you were little how to compose a proper cassoulet.

I won’t give a recipe here for cassoulet. But I will say that if you want to make one, you shouldn’t have to send away in the mail for any of the ingredients. You shouldn’t have to plan daring expeditions to far away places. You shouldn’t have to trash the food budget for the month for this one (well, given how much it makes, several) meal.

Use good ingredients. Compose the layers of flavor thoughtfully. Include only what you really like. And whatever you do, cook the whole thing well and very slowly.


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