COOKING THE CLASSICS: FRENCH CASSOULET
A closer look at Cassoulet, a traditional French dish from the South West region of Languedoc. Find out what it is and how to make it at home.
The natural home of cassoulet slow-cooked casserole, is in the Languedoc, in the southwest of France. The town of Castelnaudary claimed to have originated this week’s classic dish. I remember an early holiday with my parents, exploring the neighboring walled city of Carcassone and, of course, stopping for dinner: that was my earliest experience of eating the legendary cassoulet. I could never figure out what to order, wanting to try everything on the menu, even as a precocious eight-year-old. I loved confit of duck. I loved sausages. I loved haricots blancs, those wonderfully buttery white beans. So the ideal solution was to order everything, but in one dish. And all that good stuff appears in one enormous pot, when making cassoulet.
FROM CASSOLE TO CASSOULET
The name of this slow-cooked casserole comes from its traditional pot, called a cassole: a terracotta bowl with deep, slanted sides and a thick lip around the edge to catch drips. It’s a beautiful object, the sort you’d leave, empty, as a centerpiece on your dining table. But how much lovelier brimming with saucy, beany, smoky meats?
For the indecisive diner, cassoulet has it all. Its base layer consists of those rich white beans, but it acts as a potluck of meats that you happen to have on hand. You can really make it with any assortment, but the bounty of meats, rather than a single meat alone, is what gives it that sense of joyous abundance. The traditional ingredients include pork sausages, duck, pork skin (called couennes, which adds this crazy good umami unctuousness), and sometimes also goose or mutton.
THE HISTORY OF CASSOULET
The townsfolk of Castelnaudary stake claim to being the “World Capital of Cassoulet,” and describe it as first having been served in 1355, a meal for the town’s defenders, who were under siege. Not sure that a besieged town in the Middle Ages would really want to plump for such a rich dish, but it’s a nice story.
More likely is the updated version, with a bit more “meat” to it. It is told by the Grande Confrérie of Cassoulet (Great Brotherhood of Cassoulet) from Castelnaudary, a pseudo-medieval association (founded in 1901 but with suitably ancient-looking costumes and rites) to promote the local delicacy, and organize an annual Festival of Cassoulet in late August. Whatever the true origins, it is certain that, in 1836, the first factory to produce cassoulet at an industrial level was established in Castelnaudary. The tradition of pre-packaged cassoulet remains strong.
When it comes time for me to make my own version of cassoulet, I realize that I could easily cheat. And that I probably should. A slow-cooked meal, using an appropriately-shaped terracotta pot, should ideally use local produce. But in the name of authenticity, and because I’m lucky enough to live in Slovenia, but in proximity to a French supermarket, I can actually buy Toulouse sausage, haricots blancs (a bean which received EU protected status), and even decent confit de canard (although I now know how to make my own).
In practice, the various meats are cooked separately and later added to the simmering beans, which should ideally be cooked in goose fat (everything in the world, from French fries to shoelaces, will taste much better if cooked in goose fat).
The previous cassole of cassoulet, once the dish has been eaten, should not be cleaned, but instead deglazed (heated with wine jiggered in, to loosen the crusty bits stuck to the bottom) and reused immediately for the next portion. I come from a family that likes to reuse pots for several meals on end before cleaning, not wanting any of that leftover crusty, saucy goodness to go to waste. So being given official license to do this feels like a bonus.
The basic premise is to simmer the beans in fat and chicken stock, covered, making a version of baked beans, flavored with a mirepoix (sautéed onions, carrots and celery—the base of so many French dishes). The meats of choice are prepared separately: sausage cooked, lardons sautéed, duck confit. Then the meats and beans must be united and simmered together long enough to meld the flavors. This simmering should take place uncovered, to encourage a modest crust to form atop the dish (you can even cheat a bit and add some gelatin, to encourage said crusting). Then the dish is served in the same vessel. Bon appétit!