I’m sure many if not most of you have had a good, hearty stew or chili. Be it beef or lamb, be it Irish or Texan, you’ve likely come across it somehow. I for one love stew, especially in the winter. A with every other type of food, there’s a lot more out there than what you are used to. Maybe to spice things up and try something different, you could give a French Cassoulet a shot. It’s really very good and is not nearly as difficult or intimidating as most people think it is.
The cassoulet is about as iconic as it gets in the Southwest of France. Cassoulet was originally a food of peasants–a simple assemblage of what ingredients were available: white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, gizzards, cooked together for a long time. And although it is essentially a humble stew of beans and meat, cassoulet is the cause of much drama and debate.
Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony says, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages of Gascony.” Much like chili cook-offs in Texas, cassoulet cooking competitions are held, not only in France, but now even in the United States.
Since its composition is based originally on availability, cassoulet varies from town to town in Southwest France. But everyone agrees that, come spring, the last and best cassoulet of the season is made with freshly picked fava beans.
When making a cassoulet use as many confit meats as possible, which will impart the most flavor, but use only unsmoked bacon, like ventrèche. Don’t hesitate to cut open the upper crust to check if the cassoulet is drying out too much inside as it cooks. If so, add some liquid, like stock or demi-glace. The idea is to form a crusty top on the cassoulet, while maintaining a moist center, so breaking the film that forms as the beans cook is a good thing. Some cookbooks claim that it must be broken seven times to get the perfect cassoulet, but even breaking it and allowing it to reform twice will create a crusty and delicious finish on top (no crumbs needed!).
It’s even said that cassoulet tastes even better a day or two old, so don’t feel bad if you can’t eat the whole thing at one sitting! Enjoy the deepening flavors for days to come.
Here are few recipes. If you give it a shot, let me know!