I think the first time I heard anyone mention cassoulet, it was Martha Stewart years ago in the first version of her television show. Outside of remembering that the main ingredients were white beans and a huge amount of meat for what could be classified as a one pot meal, I know she described it as one of her traditional holiday party menu items. I also remember wondering how a preparing a pot of beans could be so involved. Really?
Now I know.
To say that cassoulet is simply a bean stew or “dried beans and meat” is humorous because I grew up eating what could be called bean stew. Beans go in a pot with few additional ingredients and not much attention. Time goes by and a tasty dinner is served. Bear in mind in this scenario, the bean to meat ratio is in favor of the legumes. Cassoulet is anything but that, but I’m thinking it shouldn’t have to be. At the same time, if I set out to make one of the many recipes I glanced at for “easy” cassoulet I’d feel I’d cheated somehow. Perhaps I’d have something with flavor similar to cassoulet, but I’d miss out on what I often enjoy so much about tackling an involved recipe for the first time: all the thinking I do. There’s something very gratifying about methodically working through a recipe that takes some thought and effort.
I’ll confess this all began with a small jar of duck fat I brought back from England recently. I saw it and knew it would remind me of all the possibilities, so tucked it well into my suitcase until we arrived home, then stored it in the fridge to think about. Many traditional versions of cassoulet are made with duck fat, but I needed a recipe that wasn’t swimming in it, which means I would need to choose a recipe lacking in, well, duck — or more specifically, duck confit. My little jar’s quantity wasn’t nearly enough to make that.
Some may say a duckless cassoulet is sacrilege, but I know the recipe I chose, which uses tomatoes and a bread crumb topping, could also invite that complaint. Cassoulet is a dish originally from the Languedoc region in Southern France, with the towns of Castelnaudary, Toulouse and Carcassonne all claiming credit for its creation and there are as many variations as there are village cooks in that region. Originally, I’d considered floundering through a Toulouse Cassoulet until I came to my senses realizing I hadn’t the time I needed to construct it.
I made the cassoulet, but I confess that I did not break the “film” that develops over it while it cooks seven times, so evidently, I did not create anything perfect. Rich, yes. Perfect, no. With respect to all that’s good about home cooking, and for someone like me who truly enjoys the process of constructing a dish like this, it’s a great reason to gather a group of special friends for a special meal just because.
Especially on a cold winter’s day.