Last week, I reveled in reading F. Scott Fitzgerald and baking banana bread, but this week I have to admit, I missed my manuscript. I thought I couldn’t wait to turn it in, but after a few days without it, I started to feel kind of lost. An experienced writer would tell me now is the time to start the next Big Project, but, I don’t know, that seems so abrupt and heartless — like diving into a cold swimming pool, or quitting smoking cold turkey. I wanted to live within my book a little longer, to dream about its French countryside locations. And then I remembered, my work wasn’t complete. I still needed to test my recipe for cassoulet.
As any French food lover will tell you, there are as many recipes for cassoulet as there are cassoulet cooks. I wanted mine to be faithful to the versions I’d eaten in Cassoulet Country — that is, the former province of Languedoc — which meant loads of beans, confit de canard, saucisse de Toulouse — and no breadcrumbs. A crunchy breadcrumb topping is considered sacrilege in this part of the world; instead the beans form a natural crust during cooking, with the starch, and juice, and fat of the dish sealed in the heat of the oven.
Cassoulet is not a dish for the faint of heart — or hurried. Mine took five days. I started by soaking some Northern beans overnight. The next day I cooked them briefly in chicken stock. (All hail the United States and its flowing rivers of packaged, unsalted chicken stock.) Day three found me browning pork belly, duck confit, and saucisse de Toulouse — I’d ordered the latter two online from the marvelous French Selections — layering the ingredients into my cassole — a special, handmade terracotta bowl that I’d lugged home from Castelnaudary — and cooking everything in a slow oven for three hours. Day four: I baked it again and cooled it. Day five: I baked it again and ate it. In total: six hours of cooking.
Thanks to the long, slow simmer, the beans were like velvet, deeply rich with pork fat and mellowed garlic. The confit slipped from the bone, the cubes of pork belly dissolved on the tongue. The fat from the meat had totally disappeared — into the beans, I realized — giving everything a lovely, luscious, round richness. It was a beautiful cassoulet, earthy and sumptuous, a taste of la France profonde on a chilly mid-Atlantic evening.
Six hours of cooking gave me lots of time to contemplate my emotions about the end of this book project. There was a lot of relief, a bit of sadness. I had stretched my four-year stint in France to almost five by continuing to immerse myself in the manuscript. Now that I’ve typed the word “FIN” it’s truly time to move on. And when I snuck my first spoonful of beans from the bubbling cassole, and finally tasted their deep velvety richness, I felt something else, something more than satisfaction, more than contentment — I think it was peace. I had made a cassoulet that could rival any I’d eaten in Cassoulet Country, made it with my own two hands. In the unlikely event that I never return to France again, I know that I will always carry France with me — at least, in the kitchen. More than anything, this book has made me self-sufficient.
Alas, dear readers, I can’t share my cassoulet recipe, though it will be in my book, published this fall! In the meantime, here are some cassoulet links from around the internets. None of them are quite like mine, but then again, every cook’s cassoulet is different, so of course they wouldn’t be. Here’s to finding self-sufficiency in the kitchen!
Toulouse-style cassoulet from Paula Wolfert (Food & Wine)