November 12, 2013 - Radio Kitchen - The Cassoulet Variations
As the Fall settles in for a long stay, we naturally start adjusting our eating habits to accommodate the season. The brisk weather sharpens our appetites, and motivates us to get outdoors and scurry around. The upshot is that our taste for more substantial fare increases, and the delicious South of France stew known as Cassoulet is the Grand Père of all hearty dishes.
There is something about a cassoulet that particularly appeals to the Foodie. Perhaps it's because some of the "required" ingredients are rare and hard to find. Perhaps it's because you can spend as much as six days making it, thus becoming a martyr to your kitchen. Or maybe it's a great way to show off your penchant for nuance and sophistication. One note of warning: a lot of people are apt to tell you what you must do to make a cassoulet that will come up to their lofty standards.
Ignore them. Do what you want to do. It's a tough dish to screw up.
The essentials: cassoulet is a slowly cooked casserole of beans, meat and vegetables. It has more versions than perhaps any other dish, and it is a natural vehicle for improvisation. Incidentally, although the classic cassoulet comes from the South of France, any culinary tradition that features beans and cooked meats has a regional variation. It's hardly a unique dish.
Think peasant, is what I say, and you can't go far wrong.
If you want to go the classic route, you need dried white beans (preferably the hard to find flageolet), a duck confit and its fat, garlicky Toulouse sausage, roasted lamb shoulder, a complex bouquet garni of herbs and spices. A little tomato sauce is a sensible if non-traditional option. Of course you should have a big oven proof casserole to cook it in.
If I were to make my own version of a cassoulet (and I don't need anybody's permission to do what I want) I would use the fresh speckled beans I get at the Farmers Market, a whole cut up duck that I would cook myself in a cast iron skillet, and I would save the fat, one of our local garlicky sausages (Binkert's Landjaeger for example), a chunk of country ham, and some country ribs (the boneless kind) that I would chop up. I would probably use a good chicken broth and a lot of white wine, and I would probably work a mirepoix of carrots, onions and celery into the mix. I would make a big bouquet garni of Herbes de Provence, and I wouldn't stint on the cumin, black pepper and sea salt, and I'd hit is with a generous dollop of tomato paste. Finally, to top it off I would pulverize a stale baguette to sprinkle over the top of the cassoulet.