Exploring Cassoulet: The Meal-in-a-Dish of Paupers and Potentates
Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.— Julia Child
Maybe You Can Thank (or Blame) Columbus
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a sea passage to the Spice Route. As we know, he missed the mark but did make two significant discoveries. First, he found the New World, but of almost equal importance (you know I'm kidding, right?) he found beans and brought them back to Europe. Or did he?
Who Spilled the Beans?
Actually, Columbus brought white beans back to his home, but fava beans were long known and used in Europe.
In 1377 an Italian potter created a flat-bottomed ceramic dish called a cassole. It was made specifically to withstand the fiery heat of baker's ovens and was the perfect vessel for the local dish of goose (and/or duck), vegetables and beans—flat, mealy fava beans which nourished the populace during the Hundred Years War.
Legend has it that Edward, the Black Prince (of Wales) took hold of the village of Castelnaudary. He envisioned starving the populace into submission, but families came together with what bits they could find in their pantries. Into a cauldron in the center of town were dumped fava beans, garlic, pork, and sausage... and cassoulet was born.
But there are those who disagree, specifically the populace of Carcassonne who insist that the only true cassoulet contain mutton (and partridges in season), and Toulouse, for whom the only true cassoulet includes poached goose and Toulouse sausage.
Cassoulet, it is not a recipe in France. It is a way to argue between villages.— Ariane Daguin, founder of gourmet meat purveyor D'Artagnan
Was It on Their Wedding Registry?
However, the 16th century was a moment of revelation (not revolution). In 1533 the plump creamy little beans we know as white lingot were lovingly transported across the Atlantic by Alexander de Medicis. This sack of South American beans was the wedding gift for his half-sister Catherine, future French countess. Here's her story:
Catherine de Medicis was the youngest child of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, Italy and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, the Countess of Boulogne. Her noble parentage placed her (of course) in line for a royal marriage. At the age of 14, she married the Duc d'Orleans. (In 1547 he would be named Henry II, King of France).
Historians say that she encouraged cultivation of the bean. Royalty are trend-setters, and so the fava fell out of favor and white lingot became the legume of choice in cassoulet.
A Bit of Trivia
- Cassoulet is serious business. There is a fraternal society, the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet, assembled to ensure the quality of the dish by conducting surprise taste tests throughout the region.
- The cassoulet region of France extends 80 miles, from Toulouse to Carcassonne, with the town of Castelnaudary situated squarely in the middle.
- At the town center of Castelnaudary is a bronze statue of a woman holding a cassole.
What Makes the Perfect Cassoulet?
Julia Child was not exaggerating when said that cassoulet is the perfect dish for "a 300-pound blocking back." The components of the authentic dish are many, difficult to source, a challenge to cook, and the entire preparation and assembly is a manifest investment of time.
The MeatsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Cassoulet is a vegetarian's nightmare. The authentic dish begins with a confit of duck or goose (this requires a minimum of up to 24 hours in the refrigerator, then a 4 1/2 hour roasting time). Pork is braised in a dutch oven for 2 hours or more. And, if that isn't enough decadence, the duck skin is rendered and sausages are cooked in the resulting fat!
The Vegetables and HerbsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Garlic, onion, carrots, and herbs provide the aromatics; as the beans simmer and break down into a rich creaminess, they absorb the sweet subtle flavors of the allium, the lemony brightness of the thyme, and the buttery earthiness of the carrots.
You cannot have cassoulet without beans. Remove them from the dish, and all you are left with is stew. Catherine de Medici demanded the white lingot, but white cannellini or white kidney beans will work just as well.
I have explained what goes into the "real deal." Today I provide three recipe options:
- A tried and true recipe from Bon Appetit (set aside 2 days for this one).
- A more sensible version by my friend Kenji.
- My streamlined version. Not only is it easier (and quicker) to prepare, but it will give both your pocketbook and your waistline a break.
Bon Appetit's Cassoulet Recipe
This recipe from the magazine Bon Appetit is indeed a labor of love. If you choose to print the recipe, the ingredients and instructions will encompass 4 pages. I would suggest that, rather than simply print the recipe, you open the link on your tablet. There are many beautiful photographs which accompany the steps. Not only are they lovely (and inspiring to look at), but they also provide a visual guide to the many complicated steps.
Kenji's (Serious Eats) Version of Cassoulet
Kenji is my spirit animal. He's what I want to be when I grow up. He belongs on the culinary Mount Rushmore. And, in this recipe, he not only tells how to do it right he also explains what he did wrong in his journey to find the way to make the perfect (but approachable) cassoulet.
There are tons of photos (of course, it's Kenji) and a lively discourse. I hope you will give his recipe a go. It also takes a fair amount of time (7 hours, 1 hour active plus an overnight soak for the beans).
Carb Diva's Budget Cassoulet
I have replaced the conventional duck confit with chicken tenders—certainly easier to obtain, much less costly, and more aligned with the typical American palette.
Be forewarned—this dish will take several hours to prepare. It's not something that you can whip up for the family when you get home from work. Plan ahead. A great meal for leisurely cooking in the kitchen on the weekend.
- 2 cups Great Northern or dried navy beans (see note below about preparing beans)
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 3 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 medium onion
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 medium carrot
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders
- 1 1/2 pounds sausage (I like Aidell's chicken sausage but use whatever you prefer), sliced
- 2 large onions, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, sliced thin
- 1 can (14 oz.) diced tomatoes
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 4 cups coarsely torn fresh bread (preferably from a crusty, rustic loaf)
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
Note About Preparing Beans
There are two ways to prepare dried beans. The first and the one with which you are probably most familiar is to sort them (there COULD be rocks hiding in there), place in a pot, cover with water and let soak overnight.
I don't know about you, but I don't often (ever?) plan that far ahead. If cooking beans requires that I prepare the night before, cooked beans aren't going to happen in my house. There's another method, an easier method, and it works just as well. Sort the beans, place them in a cooking pot (with lid) and cover with water. You want the water to go about 2 inches over the top of the beans. Bring to a full boil over high heat and boil for one minute. Turn off the heat, put on the lid and let sit for one hour. No peaking!
OK, now you're ready to proceed with the remainder of the recipe.
1. First, cook the beans. Cut a square of cheesecloth, about 6-8 inches. Place the bay leaf, rosemary, and thyme in the middle of the square and tie up with string/kitchen twine. You want the herbs to flavor the beans, but you don't want them (especially the rosemary leaves) to get lost in the broth. This little bundle is referred to as a bouquet garni (yes, it's French!).
Push the cloves into the onion; place the onion, celery stalk, and carrot to the pot. Add enough cold water to cover to about one inch above. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer gently until beans are tender throughout but not falling apart, 40 to 50 minutes. Discard the onion, celery, carrot and bouquet garni. Set the beans aside--DON'T drain!
2. Next, the meats and vegetables. While the beans are simmering prepare the meats. Heat one tablespoon of oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Cook the chicken tenders about 5 minutes, or until browned on all sides. Don't overcrowd the pan or the chicken will steam and not brown. It's best to cook in small batches. Remove the browned chicken pieces to a plate and set aside.
To the same pan add the sausage and cook about 5 minutes or just until it begins to brown and caramelize. Remove to the same plate as the chicken.
Now add the diced onion to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion becomes translucent and begins to color. Toss in the garlic slices and cook an additional minute. Add the wine and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
3. Now, get ready to assemble the casserole. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
Using a skimmer, remove half of the beans from their pot and place in the bottom of a Dutch oven. The next layer is one-half of the tomatoes.
Next, the chicken, sausage, and onions followed by the remaining tomatoes and the remaining beans. Add enough cooking liquid so the beans are almost, but not quite, submerged. Reserve the remaining liquid.
4. Bake s-l-o-w-l-y. Transfer pot to oven and cook, uncovered, for 2 hours. Check the liquid every 30 minutes to make sure it is no more than 1/2 inch below the beans, and add liquid or water as necessary. Do not stir.
After the cassoulet has cooked for 2 hours, toss bread and butter in a bowl. Sprinkle over the top, and return to oven until beans are tender and bread is golden brown, 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
Before serving, let the cassoulet stand at room temperature for 20 minutes to cool and to allow the beans to absorb some of the liquid.
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© 2018 Linda Lum