A cassoulet; downloaded from The Food Network.
I discovered cassoulet in the late Eighties at a now long gone restaurant in Placitas, New Mexico. I was there with a Canadian woman who looked like Barbara Streisand. She was from Montreal, and she knew something about cassoulet. She herself was drawn to the bouillabaisse but was leery of eating seafood this deep in the desert. I remember her reluctance and the leg of fowl poking out of my bowl, and I remember the cassoulet was very rich and very filling. I didn’t finish.
Kathleen tells me I had another cassoulet at a French restaurant before we were married. I remember the restaurant: La France. It was run by a chef who lived in Santa Fe and commuted despite maintaining both breakfast and dinner hours. He’d picked an unlikely neighborhood for a French restaurant, but he did pick the right cuisine: hardy peasant food. Still, I recall we were often the only customers in the place. He didn’t have a wine license, but he encouraged us to bring our own bottle. I remember his sitting down at the table with us after serving our meal and sharing a glass of bordeaux. But I don’t remember a thing about the cassoulet. Kathleen tells me I was excited to have found it on the menu, and I don’t doubt her for a minute.
That was some seventeen years ago. I don’t believe cassoulet entered my consciousness again until Kathleen and I went to France last fall. Kathleen’s sister-in-law prepared the dish shortly after we arrived in Carcassonne. We went shopping with her, and watched as she picked out a duck sausage, a piece of rabbit, and two chicken legs. She cooked up the stew and then put it in the fridge for several days. Kathleen was worried it would spoil. Pam assured her it only gets better. Pam must have been right because when we did have it for dinner, it was outstanding.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Pam was serving us cassoulet not merely because it is French, but because it is a regional dish. Serving visitors cassoulet in Carcassonne is like our serving green chile stew to visitors here in Albuquerque.
Later, at the great indoor marketplace in Narbonne, we saw displays of cassoulet-to-go in small, medium, and family-sized glazed earthenware bowls. Kathleen wanted to buy one for the bowl, but I assured her we could find a genuine cassoulet bowl back home. (I was wrong. More about that later.)
The following spring, I’m back in Albuquerque reading Lauren Collin’s report in The New Yorker on the Salon International de l’Agriculture in Paris. “[The Salon] is about an idea: the food of France, as opposed to French Food — what one actually finds in the country’s refrigerators and on its dinner tables.” Cassoulet came up for discussion:
Cassoulet is not considered fashionable in France. (According to a friend who grew up in Carcassonne, the home of the dish, “it is considered as a sort of Spam” because it preserves well, and it is notorious for causing gas.)
I immediately sent a link to the article to Pam’s husband, Charles. He replied:
I want to try a version which might have been the original (from the time before those kind of beans were brought to Europe) which might have featured broad beans? Not so gassy, but Pam thinks the green won’t hold. We are setting off today, from Carcassonne towards Castelnaudary and then Toulouse – the three claimed homes of Cassoulet, each with their own variation on the recipe.
Three claimed homes? I went to Google and quickly became overwhelmed by all things cassoulet. My favorite reference is the somewhat scholarly CliffordAWright.com website (a James Beard winner for best food writing in 2000 and “a premier source for Italian and Mediterranean food, cooking, food history, and traditional recipes.”) The following is taken from a much longer and very informative treatment.
The life of this famous bean stew begins in Castelnaudary. The cassoulet of Castelnaudary, a pleasant village in the Aude along the Canal du Midi, is certainly the oldest of the three cassoulets, the other two being from Carcassonne and Toulouse. Some authors speak of a fourth and fifth cassoulet, but in reality you can speak of three or a thousand.
This is familiar territory. Here in New Mexico, we claim green chile stew as our own, but its heritage is a mixture of the Spanish and Pueblo Native American and Mexican and Texan. While nobody challenges us about green chile stew being our dish, every New Mexican challenges almost every other New Mexican’s “traditional” version of the stew. And like much of everything else in this state, there are regional differences between rio arriba and rio abajo. (There does seem to be widespread agreement that you don’t put beans in your stew like the Texans do in their chili. ¡Consiga una cuerda!*)
It doesn’t come as a surprise that there are a multitude of different recipes for cassoulet, including the “traditional” versions attributed to each of the three towns. And given some of the ingredients, it doesn’t come as a surprise that there are some adjustments for the American cook. In most cities, we’re simply unable to walk into our local meat market and pick up duck legs or rabbit parts, never mind some of the French regional sausages. Nor are we likely to readily come by Tarbais beans, said by many to be the bean of the French cassoulet.
(The first time K and I saw duck legs in a French marketplace, they were sticking up out of a large bowl of what we thought were mashed potatoes. The “mashed potatoes” was duck fat, also considered by many to be essential to a true cassoulet.)
By now, I’d picked out a recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt, a graduate of the Académie Universelle du Cassoulet, no less, who makes a good, as well as entertaining, argument for using chicken legs instead of duck. (You can read that here.)
Finding a close-enough American recipe is one thing. Finding the glazed earthenware pot, called a cassole, here in the States is another. Le Creuset makes a stoneware cassoulet pot, but I think K would feel it wouldn’t be the same without being cooked (and presented) in a cassole.
Le Creuset stoneware cassoulet pot; downloaded from Amazon.
French cassole; downloaded from etsy.
Actually, the pot above is described on the etsy website as a “French tian” and a “cassoulet cassole.” I saw “tian” used in conjunction with “cassoulet” on several other websites picturing similar looking pots, so back to Google I went. As if the subject wasn’t complicated enough, the tian turns out to be technically different from the cassole. Both are flat-bottomed, conical shaped, wider at the mouth, earthenware pots glazed on the inside. But the tian is from Provence, the cassole from Languedoc to the west. The tian is shallower — more like the Le Creuset bowl pictured above. Furthermore, while cassoulet is cooked in a cassole, a “tian” (a dish of Provence different from a cassoulet) is cooked in a tian, although I’ve found plenty of tian recipes pictured in plain baking dishes.
For that matter, plenty of folks say when it comes to cooking a cassoulet, a dutch oven will work just as well as a cassole. Some claim to have used both and have found the results indistinguishable from one another. We have a Lodge cast iron dutch oven, and that will surely serve as our first cassoulet vessel.
Could I imagine a cassoulet du sud-ouest? Well, I really can’t imagine putting green chile in a cassoulet, but I’ve been thinking about adding epazote for those “notorious” gas-producing beans.
* Git a rope!