Cassoulet (CAH-soo-lay). One of the great winter comfort foods, and certainly not for the calorie-shy — beans long-simmered with pork fatback and rind, as well as sausages, and duck, goose or lamb. A true peasant dish in the best sense, taking the humblest of ingredients and raising them to glorious heights with care and slow cooking.
As with all the best foods, there are as many recipes for cassoulet as there are cooks. At the foundation are the three great traditions around the Provencal districts from which cassoulet is said to have sprung — traditions that dictate what combination of meats will flavor and provide the unctuous bath for the lowly bean. Debates rage and blood pressures rise about whether duck or goose confit is better, and whether the inclusion of lamb is merely tolerable or absolutely sacrilegious. To claim one’s cassoulet “Castlenaudry” or “Toulouse” one would probably seek out ingredients actually from those regions. But it seems to me more in keeping with the spirit of cassoulet to use ingredients closer to home, and to elevate the meal with great love and attention rather than with pricey ingredients.
This particular cassoulet, while scrumptious, was not my best example. For one, the beans were much too small to capture and hold all that lovely fatty broth. I don’t know what I was thinking using navy beans, but it was a serious brain fart. I also did not make a duck confit, and instead just browned the duck legs and added them and their rendered fat into the beans. The most garlicky sausage I could find on short notice was a Louisiana-style andouille, which together with the pork belly were also browned and added to the cooking pot, with their rendered drippings of course. One pound of dry beans, 2 duck legs, 3 sausages, 2.5 lbs of pork, loads of garlic, thyme, parsley, tomatoes, water, seasoning and breadcrumbs — that’s it. Six hours and 2 days later, choruses of “Bon Appetit.”
But even the most ardent fan of cassoulet (have you met my husband?) will concede that this is a dish best savored in deep winter when the biting cold will lend some justification for the extra pounds that will definitely ensue. Why ensue? Because cassoulet is a dish that makes no apologies for the pork fat, duck or goose fat (ha, ha, guess what “confit” is!), and sausage drippings that conspire to create the oh-so rich broth in which the beans will bake and swim. This is something we make only once a year, though it’s been at least 4 years since we last had this at home. Tropical Hawaii was much too warm for such a rich and hefty dish — seriously, this is Portuguese bean soup on steroids.
We missed the buzz about cassoulet that circulated around the U.S. in November, on Election Night. Evidently a mischievous French-speaking cameraman declared his love for his Maman’s cassoulet by holding high signs that said “cassoulet” or “cassoulet forever” behind American broadcasters reporting on Mr. Obama’s victory. The signs were clearly visible in many news broadcasts, prompting a flurry of internet searches in the U.S. for the term “cassoulet” (it was reported to be one of the top Google searches on Election Day.) Some people even wondered out loud — including a broadcaster on live TV, “Who is Cassoulet?”
LOL (ou RaHV?)
We happened to make a cassoulet this weekend at T’s request. This is one of his all-time favorite foods — he even likes the canned stuff one can find on any supermarket shelf in cassoulet’s mother country. It was a celebratory meal, too, as we opened a special wine to toast our incoming president and in between sips and mouthfuls rocked with Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, U2, MaryJ Blige, Stevie Wonder, and Garth Brooks (who knew he was a little bit rock ‘n’ roll?!), who were performing down the street at the concert at the Lincoln Memorialthat was the kick-off for the inauguration of our 44th President.
So Mr. Obama, we saved you a plate. And our first toast was also for you:
“Vive le President! Long live the 44th President of these United States!”