A hearty bowl of cassoulet
I didn't grow up a mini-foodie. I ate what was in front of me (well, most of the time. I was a picky eater). It's funny though, how some of the foods I enjoyed as a kid in rural, southern Kentucky, have reappeared in my life as a food writer. Squash blossoms for instance -- my family was frying pumpkin blossoms from our backyard patch when I was in grade school. I was surprised (and shocked at the price) to find them on the menu, three for $10, at a trendy New York City restaurant years later. I also grew up on "dry land fish," -- morel mushrooms. They weren't a high-end delicacy when I was a kid though. They were just the really good mushrooms my family foraged for.
A staple in my youthful diet was soup beans. My mom would simmer beans all day with a ham hock, the tantalizing aroma filling the house on a chilly day. Served with greens, cornbread, and fried potatoes (cooked in lard before that became trendy), this was one of my top favorite meals. So when I spent time in rural southwestern France as the writer in residence at a culinary center, I felt a kinship with the cuisine, particularly the cassoulet.
I wrote this on my blog while in France:
Just the word sounds like an intimidating dish. The food writers who treat it like a holy grail don’t help matters. It’s become almost mythical. But guess what? It’s a bean dish. Flavored with meat. When you get down to it it’s not so terribly different in concept from the soup beans I had growing up.
Cassoulet is named for the cassole, the conical clay dish in which it’s baked. It’s made of white beans simmered with pork and vegetables, then baked with duck confit and sausage. The result is a creamy, extremely hearty winter dish that’s the definition of ‘stick to your ribs.’ While now people will make confit especially for cassoulet, it was initially a dish cooked in order to make use of confit. It’s so interesting how foodies will turn around a dish and go to such lengths to create something that was originally a way to use what people had (myself included!).
I've thought of the cassoulet many times since my time there three winters ago. But it's an extremely labor intensive dish, and not one you'd really make for just two people. So I've been waiting for the cold weather that's now arrived just so that I could dig into a dish of cassoulet at La Coop, the French bistro that opened this summer in Louisville. Chef Bobby Benjamin creates his take on the dish with a veritable ark of ingredients including duck fat, pork fat, andoullie sausage, pork belly, celery, onion, carrot, sherry wine, chicken stock, veal stock, duck confit, and of course white beans. The luscious fats in his magician's brew meld with the tender duck confit for an epic comfort food. I ate every last speck in my dish, transported simultaneously to my childhood dinner table and to a roaring fireplace in Gascony, France.
It's well worth the trip, but if you can't make it to Louisville, I hear Ouita Michel is serving a special cassoulet dinner on Nov 11. Check it out!