By Cheryl A. Wixson
When the skies turn a dark, mottled gray and the clouds start to scurry as the winds pick up from the northeast, my heart flutters. As the elegant spruce trees bend into swirling white snowflakes and our lights flicker, my taste buds quiver. There’s a winter gale coming: time for a pot of cassoulet.
Cassoulet (ka-soo-LAY), literally translated as casserole, hails from the Languedoc wine region of France. A hearty, regional dish, there are endless variations of cassoulet, but all have one center pivot: baked beans. White baked beans. Beans lovingly baked over a low fire for a long time. Beans fragrant with the fat of duck or pork, and basked in the juices of lamb, chicken or goose. Beans slowly simmered with garlic and vegetables of the season and finished with crusty buttered crumbs.
Cassoulet is comfort food, comforting to prepare and comforting to eat. While the storm rages outside, my house fills with the wonderful aromas of onions, garlic, meat and beans bubbling away. Who cares if the lights go out? My cassoulet is equally happy harmonizing over the flames of the wood stove as over those of the oven.
A day’s cassoulet will be different every time, as it depends upon the season and what’s in inventory. First start with a heavy cast iron or cast enamel pot that can go from stovetop to oven. My favorite pot is a large, bright blue Le Cruset, the insides stained with batches of slow-simmered foods. Over a moderate flame on the cook-top or wood stove, render some fat – two or three pieces of bacon, a chunk of salt pork, or spoonfuls of chicken or duck fat. After removing the cooked meat, add some chopped onions and garlic, perhaps even a leek, and let the wind howl while the house fills with the rich, fragrant smells of caramelizing onions.
From this point on, fierce and spirited discussions debate the proper preparation of cassoulet. The next step is to cook the beans. Some prefer to soak them for several hours before. If I have not been that organized, I’ll simply add about 1 pound of dry white beans, a bay leaf and 8 cups of rich stock to the pot. Simmer slowly for 2 hours or so, checking frequently, adding more stock if needed. Love your beans while they soak up the rich goodness of chicken, beef, vegetable, lamb or lobster stock. Once the beans start to soften, add carrots, celery or celeriac, leeks, frozen bell peppers, perhaps even a scrape of turnip. Dried mushrooms add a marvelous depth of character; just be sure to add more water or stock.
Classic cassoulet contains lamb, pork and fowl, such as goose or duck. Some cooks roast a loin of pork, a shank of ham and a leg of lamb, adding the marrow, juices and meat to the beans. Confit, meat that is salted and slowly cooked in its own fat and then packed in a crock covered with its cooking fat, is often used. Confit d’oie and confit de canard (preserved goose or preserved duck) are not usually on my pantry shelf, but I will save and freeze the remains from a Canada goose or a few black ducks to add to the pot.
For my winter gale cassoulet, I quicken the process with my meat, using frozen rich ham stock and chunks of ham from a boiled dinner, or the remains of lamb shanks cooked until the meat falls from the bone, or venison pot roast. King Hill Farm garlic mutton sausage, or spicy kielbasa, even rabbit sausage, complete the ode to carnivores. About 5 pounds of meat is a good ratio to properly marry with a pound of white beans.
Once the beans are tender, the flavors married and settled, complete the repast: Stir in some tomato paste, chopped bacon or salt pork scraps, and chopped fresh parsley. Taste and correct the seasonings with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. From here, some of the cassoulet may be saved for future meals. Top the portion you are going to serve with garlic and buttered breadcrumbs and heat until golden. Serve your cassoulet triumphantly with crusty bread, a simple green salad and a hearty red wine.
While our cassoulet may not be quick to prepare, proper planning for the event and using the freezer spreads out the steps over time. The Joy of Cooking and The Silver Palate Cookbook each have detailed recipes that also make for good bedside reading.
The proper and authentic execution of cassoulet may create debate, but everyone agrees that this hearty, nourishing and simple food becomes elevated to greatness by the quality and matchless quantity of ingredients. My winter gale cassoulet is great because of the commitment of my farmers, and I relish and enjoy this in every bite!
Maine Lobster Cassoulet
The key to Maine Lobster Cassoulet is your lobster stock. Be sure to make it yourself.
4 oz. bacon
1 onion, chopped – about 1 cup
4 cloves chopped garlic
3/4 c. chopped leeks
2 ribs celery chopped, or about 3/4 cup chopped celeraic
2 carrots chopped, generous 1 cup
2 c. chopped mushrooms
4 c. lobster stock
4 c. white beans, cooked al dente
1 c. or so chopped, frozen bell peppers
1/4 c. tomato paste
1 lb. Maine lobster meat
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
Garlic buttered crumbs
In a heavy pot, cook the bacon to render the fat. Remove the bacon, chop into fine pieces and set aside. Cook the onions, garlic and leek in the bacon fat. Add the carrots, mushrooms, peppers and celery. Stir in the lobster stock. Add the beans and bay leaf and simmer over moderate heat or in the oven for an hour or so, until the beans are tender. Stir in the tomato paste, chopped parsley, chopped bacon bits and chopped Maine lobster. Taste and correct seasonings. Remove the bay leaf. Top with garlic buttered crumbs and return to oven to heat lobster and brown the crumbs.
Cheryl Wixson is MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant and resident chef. She welcomes your recipes and jars of condiments, questions and comments at [email protected] or 852-0899.