Intrepid friends are willing to share in the traditional cassoulet of the South of France. Betty Lies brought green olive tapenade for appetizer, and Carolyn Yoder poured Pol Roger. Valerie Meluskey marinated ripe cantaloupe in a light yet complex vinaigrette. Pat Tanner crafted jewel-like citron tartes topped with citron knots. Faith Bahadurian brought le vin typique pour cassoulet, Madiran. Fay Lachmann found ‘the black wine of Cahors,’ which Werner and I had been served over and over in the South of France, to accompany their regional specialty, in 1978. The wines were spectacular, including the classic dessert wine, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise with our tartes.
It all started with a packet of beans. Faith Bahadurian, Ur-Food-Writer and good friend of long standing, well knows my passion for the south of France. She therefore ordered a package of Rancho Gordo Cassoulet beans, secretly hoping I would take the bait. I immediately invited the group of dear friends, who, –as Des Confreres du Choucroute–, gathered here to see if those simple ingredients of pork and saucisson and sauerkraut, plus some very special Rieslings, could be alchemized into a memorable meal. Indeed they could. So the group returned for the cassoulet of Languedoc.
Other people are homesick for America when they leave, even to kissing the ground upon return. I have always been the other way ’round. As the S.S. France lowered our American car onto the quai of Le Havre in 1964, I knew my very American feet were walking upon the earth of my real home. I did not fully realize yet about regional cuisine. I also had no IDEA how very different the South of France is from everywhere else, especially Paris. And I had barely heard of Languedoc.
Nothing has ever changed my total connection to La Belle France. I managed to live in Provence, (Cannes, near Vallauris, on l’Observatoire Hill) from 1987 to 1988. I don’t think I had cassoulet on that journey. Rather, when Werner and I, with the Friends of the Art Museum (Princeton) spent more than two weeks in Romanesque France (often more Roman than Romanesque!) in 1978, we were honored with cassoulet in auberge after auberge. The places we stayed rolled out their regional specialties for Princetonians, and cassoulet was their favorite and mine.
I used to make this dish often when I lived on Braeburn off Snowden, in my early Princeton years. My husband often cooked lamb and duck, out in the Weber grill. I would save and freeze leftovers, to serve at supper parties, using elegant slender flageolets verts seches (dried beans, the icy green of celadon, which were easily available in the days before globalization.) However, as this cassoulet sequel to choucroute took form, I discovered that one cannot find those special slender forceful little pale green beans any more. Faith to the rescue: Rancho Gordo’s flageolets blancs (white) worked well, and held their shape during the three hours of cooking.
I took pictures all along, in this process, for this dinner planned three months ago. I’ll share them with you, to give you a sense of our night.
Some of us at the table had been to the South of France together, some more than once. Again, however, without the peasant dish that is cassoulet.
Although everyone didn’t know everyone today, there was a sense of reunion and strong fellowship. France has that effect..
Forgive the out-of-focus picture here. I was so amazed at the enlargement and engorgement of the beans, that I wasn’t using the right setting on the camera.
The famous beans were mixed with the ultimate broth, along with sauteed carrot and onion chunks, more garlic (in addition to that which was cooked with the lamb chunks), and sauteed tiny pancetta bits. Also the (very ugly) pork belly, cut into smaller pieces because it seemed tough. Those hearty hefty Trader Joe tomatoes and his fresh rosemary and thyme branches, went into the beans, although I never remember tomatoes in cassoulet. The recipe called for chicken broth and a half bottle of a wine from the south of France good for cooking and appropriate to the dish: La Ferme Julien (typical Daudet goat on label) was suggested by one of the helpful wine experts at Trader Joe’s This assemblage went into the refrigerator in one container. All the meats, including those gorgeous crisp duck legs, purportedly confit, went into another, also with La Ferme Julien wine as marinade. Into the refrigerator with it all until this morning.
In case you’re getting impatient, here is the resulting creation – before its oven time and crumbing:
This morning, half the brothed refrigerated beans went into the crock of the crock pot. Then all the meats, including the duck legs. Then the rest of the beans. Sprigs of thyme and of rosemary were introduced at each layer. I put the crock pot on high at noon, and after an hour nothing had happened. So into the oven at 350 in the crock pot crock with its lid went this assemblage for the prescribed three hours.
Starting at one p.m., crumbs were generously used to cover the top layer of beans. A thin ‘fil’ (thread) of olive oil was laced back and forth over the crumbs. Then into the oven again. One can do this crumb crisping (I ended up broiling it after 45 minutes) three times or more. Three was enough.
You may wonder why I say ‘purported’ confit. In France, confit du canard ou confit d’oie (goose) is cooked in fat and sold in the cooking fat. French recipes for cassoulet specify ‘un pot du grasse cu confit’. Ha! There wasn’t a speck of duck fat in this actually very lovely confit — only the handsome, succulent legs. We made do with olive oil.
As with our experiment with choucroute, for all the splendors of this night, the best part was our fellowship.