Tuesday, February 14, 2006

History Lesson: Cassoulet

Part two in my Valentine's dinner, I feel that I must make it clear right up front that I did not prepare tonight's incredible cassoulet. Chris and I were lucky enough to find a reputable purveyor in the south of France while on our honeymoon, and we've been saving the jar of goodness for an occasion. While we don't normally make much of a fuss over Valentine's Day, I have been feeling a bit of a fondness lately for a day set aside to remind the people you care about that...well, you care about them.

So, in lieu of a recipe (since all I did was sprinkle bread crumbs and bake it up), I thought I would write a bit about the history of this hearty and satisfying dish. I've found several variations of this legend:

During the 100-year-war (between 1337 and 1453), the inhabitants of Castelnaudary, who were besieged by the English, made a gigantic ragout gathering of all their reserves of beans and various meat: geese, pork and sausages. Perked up by this imposing dish, they victoriously pushed back the enemy.

(from Chef Eric)

Cracking open my cherished copy of Larousse Gastronomique, I was not surprised to find a lengthy entry concerning cassoulet. This is a dish that is inherently French, and we all know that the French are fiercely protective of their national dishes. One of the many things I love so much about the French people is their dedication to preserving the qualities of traditional dishes--how many other countries have a "Gastronomie" committee whose sole job is to regulate the ingredients and quality of certain recipes? Did you know that in France, by law, a cassoulet must by made up of 30% pork (which can include sausage and Toulouse sausage, but never Strasbourg sausage), preserved duck or goose; and 70% haricot beans and stock, fresh pork rinds, herbs and flavorings? A generous final coating of breadcrumbs is then required for a golden crust. Some communities even have distinctions on how the dish should be eaten--in Castelnaudary they insist on breaking the gratin crust 7 times, while in Toulouse 8 times is customary.

In spite of these specifications, there are as many variations on cassoulet as there are people who take credit for it. The cassoulet we brought back with us contains fat slices of homemade pork sausage (saussicon du porc), duck leg confit (confit du canard), white beans (haricort blanc), and a very light tomato sauce. I made the bread crumbs from my sturdy loaf out of the freezer.

As a fitting accompianment to this dinner, I served the cassoulet alongside a simple salad out of torn baby escarole leaves tossed in Perfect Vinaigrette, and a bottle of wine we trucked across the ocean with us--a 2001 Chateau de Lamarque Haut-Medoc Bordeaux. Of course, my wonderful creme brulee was the perfect dessert. When all was said and done, we enjoyed a meal that had us passing honeymoon memories back and forth all night.


LE said...

Cassoulet is the one meal in Paris that I wanted to keep going back for again and again. (Unfortunately, I was never able to find that particular cafe a second time.)

So I still pine for it, but I'm a little scared to try making it myself, for there's no way any version I make could live up to my memories.

Marianne said...

Now I'm determined to make it for myself, once I can afford the duck confit. You can also buy jars of it, similar to what I used, at Dean & Deluca.

Michele Lombard said...

After slushing through the rain and wind today, I felt like it was time to come home to a warm careful meal to soothe the soul. A friend had mentioned earlier just how much the weather was making her miss Paris and I started thinking about how much I want to go back to France, soon. As I strolled through the aisles of our local Whole Foods, I found a way to create an organic hybrid of the Cassoulet to enjoy. Six hours later, there is a cassoulet simmering on the stove. I improvised of course and found that 1 cup of white wine simply would not do! So, one beautiful bottle of white wine, an organic chicken, white beans, tomato, carrots, kale and, of course, pork sausage and bacon combined with herbs and spices have been stirred, loved and serenaded for the evening. I have sampled the first round and I must admit that this timeless tradition heals all.