Culinary Olympics: Cassoulet Division

Making the difficult dish to distract from the recession.


The wind is howling, the tax man will soon be at the door, and the economic indicators are the worst in generations: Who doesn’t need comfort food right now? While this might be the winter of our discontent, it is also a damn good time to make cassoulet.

Self-proclaimed gourmands already know the delights of cassoulet, a long-simmering bean-and-meat dish from the southwestern Languedoc region in France. If you are a serious home cook, then you also know that cassoulet is its own division in the winter culinary Olympics.

Forget the Iron Chef or the Bocuse D’or. There should be medals for any kitchen amateur who attempts a recipe where you measure the prep time in days, not hours, and for which just assembling the ingredients is like going for a triple lutz jump at your neighborhood ice rink.

Despite this, I decided to begin 2009 by assembling my first cassoulet. As the minutes of the old year were slipping away, I was braising pork sausages and cubed pork shoulder in duck fat, valiantly trying to make a New Year’s Day dinner deadline. The next thing I knew, it was a new year and I had a new obsession, one that conveniently helped me tune out the news around me. Forget my rapidly deflating 401(k); I needed more duck fat, and I needed it then.

That inaugural cassoulet was tasty enough; I remain smug that a 9-year-old at the table gobbled it up. But I knew I hadn’t given it my all: A true cassoulet is supposed to induce swoons, with beans that are creamy but not mushy, a broth that is ambrosial and silky, and a browned bread-crumb crust that has been broken and reformed several times.

Everyone at that table remained upright; clearly, I had work to do.

If you wade into the world of cassoulet, you soon discover a long history of tradition, details, and debate. The three French cities that claim the cassoulet as their own—Castelnaudary, Carcassonne, and Toulouse—are referred to as the Holy Trinity by no less an authority than Prosper Montagne, the author of the original version of the French culinary bible Larousse Gastronomique. Each has a slightly different recipe. Do you use goose or duck? Do you add garlic sausage? Is a piece of lamb or mutton thrown in?

Even a cursory search for a contemporary recipe can leave you confounded. Do you opt for the ease of the 40-minute version provided by Mark Bittman, the “Minimalist” columnist for the New York Times, though even he admits it’s heresy? Do you enslave yourself to the American edition of The Larousse, which advises that one’s cassoulet is best cooked “in a bakery oven, preferably fueled by mountain gorse”?

Sure. I’ll get right on that.

For my second attempt at cassoulet, I found myself swearing fealty to another Times food writer, Amanda Hesser, whose 1999 recipe seemed to most hit the note of moderation I wanted. Although, in retrospect, any recipe that calls for homemade duck confit to be stored in an earthenware crock isn’t concerned with the question of excess.

Apparently, I wasn’t, either. How else to explain the hours I devoted to locating a store that carried tarbais beans, the white kidney-shaped legume you presumably could pick up at the Safeway in Castelnaudary? I did find them in a bricks-and-mortar store in this country called Kalustyans but only by dint of an article on a spirituality blog, Guideposts, in which a writer named Rosie Schaap described a similar quest.

And moderation surely doesn’t describe the picture I presented when I maneuvered past a tight-lipped server at Anthony Bourdain’s Park Avenue restaurant, Les Halles, so I could sweet-talk the white-jacketed man at the butcher case into selling me saucisses de Toulouse, the garlic sausage most properly put into a cassoulet.

In my own defense, I will point out that I resisted the temptation of ordering my own cassoulet pot, made to the specifications of food writer Paula Wolfert by a pottery gallery in Hutchinson, Minn., called the Clay Coyote. And, luckily, there wasn’t time for me to follow the Cassoulet Route prescribed in French by an organization in Carcassone called the Academie Universelle du Cassoulet.

Still, clearly, I had lost it. But I wasn’t alone. I invited a tableful of carnivores to share my labors, but one couple demurred: They had already scheduled their own cassoulet for the same night. You think I was overreaching? They had made their own sausage and their own confit—of lamb belly.

Our phone conversations sounded practically Talmudic as we reverently intoned the names of food writers and their recipes for cassoulet: Have you read the Paula Wolfert? The Julia Child? The Simone Beck? Check, check, and check. Since I live in Manhattan and they live in Brooklyn, the cassoulet battle of the boroughs began.

Competition quickly turned into commiseration, however. Their first batch of beans had to be thrown out; I couldn’t believe how long it took to make homemade bread crumbs for the crust. Should they brown the top? Had I cooked the duck enough? Eventually, they just flipped on the speakerphone for their kitchen extension so we could conference more easily.

The big night arrived, and I nervously broke the crust on top of my cassoulet. It was perfect. I filled plate after plate, and my apartment swirled with guests, so it wasn’t until later in the evening that I was finally introduced to a woman who had been brought by a friend of mine. Her name was Rosie. Yes, she was my tarbais bean queen.

Culinary kismet doesn’t happen very often. We screamed, everyone else screamed, and we all toasted the moment. Maybe it was all the duck fat talking, but I felt I had arrived in my own sisterhood of the cassoulet, flush with the success of a foodie quest successfully completed.

There is a Brotherhood of the Cassoulet, which you can read about in Saveur, whose members wear hats in the shape of the cassoule, the earthenware bowl that gave the dish its name, sort of a Gallic version of Green Bay Packer fans. I’d get one, but what do you think I am—crazy?