Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cassoulet vs. Cassoulet

Winter is wrapping up but it's not going to get warm in Chicago for awhile. It's a great time of year for French Onion Soup, Spring Lamb Stew and a perfect time to make my first Cassoulet. Over the weekend Cassoulet recipes were popping up all over the place. I read Mark Bittman's recipe with great interest until I got to the part where he called for a pound of lamb shoulder. That didn't seem right. The Wall Street Journal also published a Cassoulet recipe last weekend and theirs has no lamb and appears to be a lot simpler to prepare. Plus, the WSJ got Thomas Keller's protégé, Philip Tessier, to write the recipe. Bittman, you've been outdone.

The two recipes reveal the centuries-old désaccord concerning appropriate ingredients for a Cassoulet. D'Artagnan's site quotes Andre Daguin, a famous chef of Gascony, who said, “Cassoulet is not really a recipe, it’s a way to argue among neighboring villages of Gascony.”  Bittman is hardly the lone wolf tossing lamb or something other than duck into the pot. Saveur Magazine posted a recipe that calls for ham hocks and pork shoulder.

Bittman does get credit for writing a very detailed recipe, which includes method for preparing the duck confit and stock. Also, he uses the whole duck. I like the simplicity and economy of that decision. Cassoulet has decidedly peasant origins. Not that I expect anyone's desire to eat Cassoulet has anything to do with wanting to eat like a peasant.

The drawback to the Tessier (no lamb) recipe is that it necessitates consulting another recipe for duck confit and sourcing 8 duck legs. I've seen whole ducks at Whole Foods but not packaged duck legs. When I make my Cassoulet it will be a tidy marriage of  the Tessier and Bittman recipes, using a whole duck and garlic sausage. I'll post that recipe if I'm happy with it.

It's interesting to note that sourcing ingredients for this humble bean stew, which has roots of being a communal dish, a sort of stone soup, will require nothing short of a line of credit at Whole Foods. Also, Cassoulet is not made to serve 4. You make it to serve a gathering of friends (friends who like duck and white beans). As Julia Child said, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.”

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