display | more...

Cassoulet is a classic French dish from the Languedoc region of southwestern France which is traditionally cooked in an earthenware pot known as a cassole (hence the name). In essence cassoulet is a slowly cooked casserole of beans and meats, often topped with a gratin of crunchy crumbs. It is classic hearty peasant food which matches the earthy wines of the region perfectly.

There are said to be a trinity of true cassoulets: the Father, from Castelnaudary, where it is made with fresh and smoked pork products; the Son, from Carcassone, where mutton is preferred; and the Holy Ghost, from Toulouse where pork, sausage, lamb, and duck and goose confit is utilized. In some areas too fish cassoulet is popular. I prefer the Toulouse version, but I certainly don't tell this to someone from one of the other traditions, for I don't want to come to blows with them over the most delicious version of this wonderful dish.

Legends place the origins of cassoulet "far back in the history of greediness", as one website charmingly puts it, but there is much debate about exactly how far back in that history one must go. Some argue that cassoulet is of rather recent origin, as white beans were only introduced into Europe from the Americas around 500 years ago; before that Europe had only green beans.

However, Castelnaudary tales recount that the precursor bean-based dish dates from the time of the Hundred Years War (1337 - 1453). The story goes that a provost thought that preparing a dish with all the victuals from the town would give his besieged troops courage for a coming offensive. Finding plenty of beans, fresh and salted pork, geese, and sausages, the chef prepared a huge stewed dish and served it at a raucous banquet along with barrels of the local wine. After the banquet the soldiers, replete but emboldened, set off all their artillery and then rushed with a huge roar straight at their British enemies. The explosions were so loud and the soldiers so rowdy that the British fled in panic and didn't stop running until they reached the shores of the English Channel.

Another story goes that long before the discovery of the Americas, in the 7th century, the Arabs introduced white beans to the French and taught the local people how to cook them in a sheep-based stew.

Whichever story is correct, it is clear that cassoulet is an important part of regional French cooking, and a treat worth seeking out.

Traditional cassoulet is very time-consuming to prepare, for the ingredients are legion and traditionally prepared over days and weeks by hand: they include duck confit (duck preserved in its own fat); pork rinds fried in the fat from the confit; fresh handmade lamb or pork sausage; homemade broth; and dried beans which are soaked overnight, drained, blanched and drained again, and then cooked in the broth; all combined and baked slowly in the cassole.

I prepare a much simpler version using canned great northern beans and duck confit from my wonderful butcher, and I omit the pork rind; I can have the whole thing on the table in two hours. I'm sorry that I can't give you detailed instructions on how to prepare this dish, but I can't, both because I make it up as I go along and because I fear it would be sacrilege to even call my streamlined version cassoulet. But there are no shortage of recipes available in cookbooks and online. The inimitable Julia Child has a recipe that requires three days to make, but happily le Lingodoc family from Castelnaudary has a traditional recipe which isn't quite so complicated at www.lingodoc-riviere.com.

www.jsonline.com/entree/cooking/jan02/15191.asp
www.pachon.co.jp/eng/pachon/Cassoulet/

Anthropod's right: there is something that can be construed as sacrilegious about trying to pass off your own concoction as a traditional dish, especially when you are not steeped in the ritual and custom associated with it. You, and your meal, become something of an interloper, a fraud. Conversely, however, there is also value in writing down the way that you do something. Traditional foods embrace such diversity — from family-to-family, village-to-village, area-to-area — that a definitive recipe just doesn’t exist. Your variation on the basic principles is, therefore, just as legitimate as the next person’s. Moreover, recipes are guides, not prescriptions; making what works for you is part of the process. None of this is to say, though, that you can remove a recipe so far from its core with your tweaks and your changes and still call it by that name.

This recipe is based on the fundamentals of a cassoulet, but there are distinct and somewhat inevitable alterations. There is no pig in it, for a start. The goose meat is also not confit, but the left-overs from the roast bird that was the centre-piece of a midwinter feast. The beans are butter beans, not haricot beans, because that’s my preference. But this is slow-cooked food, the result of an entire afternoon spent pottering in the kitchen, listening to the radio, enjoying a glass of wine, and relishing the process of creating a meal. It isn’t difficult or complicated, just demanding of your time. And for that, you will be handsomely rewarded.

Ingrediments to serve between four and six people

  • 150g (5oz) sausage, cut in 2cm (1”) chunks — if you are of the pig-eating persuasion, Toulouse sausages are the ideal, I improvised and used kabanos
  • 1tbsp goose fat
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 fat cloves garlic, minced
  • 410g (14oz) can tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ glass of wine — red or white, it doesn’t really matter
  • 2 x 410g (14oz) cans butter beans, drained and rinsed
  • 400g (14oz) goose meat, torn into chunks — we used the meat from the legs, picked off of the bone. You could of course use duck meat, or confit if you have it. This was how much meat we had. It doesn’t have to be exact.
  • Goose stock — I made two batches of stock from my goose, one from the giblets and the other from the carcass; if you aren’t so fortunate, chicken stock will be fine
  • Salt and pepper

Method

Begin by melting the goose fat in a large, heavy-based lidded pan. Over a very gentle flame brown the sausage. When it has browned, remove it from the pan, leaving as much of the fat behind as possible.

Toss the onion and garlic into the hot fat and cook until they have softened and look glassy.

Now tip in the tomatoes, pour in the wine, and cook for a minute or two.

Return the sausage to the pan along with the butter beans and goose meat. Season and mix well.

Add enough stock so that none of the ingredients is exposed, but neither should they be swimming, exactly. Cover and leave to cook slowly for between one and two hours. When it’s ready, it should be thick and unctuous and oozing with flavour.

I served mine with boiled potatoes, because it was a left-overs supper and they needed to be eaten, a green salad, and a bottle of Cotes du Rhone.


Music to cook to: your radio station of choice

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.