Whoa, this last week definitely got the better of me! It seemed like every last item on my to-do list suddenly reached its deadline, and every spare and frazzled moment was consumed by errands and chores. Any hopes of blogging just got lost in the shuffle. But the important thing is, we’re still on track. The dinner parties are progressing right on schedule. And I’ve been anxious all week to tell you about our latest get together, because I made one of my favorite dinners. And so, with no further excuses or other sorts of ado, let’s talk about cassoulet.
A traditional dish from the south of France, cassoulet is a rich and rustic slow-cooked stew of tender white beans and a variety of meats. An undeniably homely meal– all a big mush of browns and tans and grays - cassoulet could make even the most superficial of persons believe the old truth, real beauty lies within, for no other food could taste more beautiful. Creamy white beans infused with smoky bacon flavor, rich and salty shreds of duck confit, mini sausage cakes seasoned with herbs and spices, indulgent slices of fatty pork belly, tender cubes of roasted pork loin and deeply aromatic, slow-cooked lamb stew, all enfolded in a deeply flavored sauce and topped with a thick and toasted crust of buttery herbed breadcrumbs.
Layer upon layer of incredible goodness, cassoulet is as homey as it is homely, a big slow-cooked pot of pure comfiness. One bite can warm your soul. A winter dish through and through, it begs to be eaten next to a crackling fire, in a little log cabin out in the middle of a snowy forest. Or perhaps simply in a cozy little Chicago fourth-floor apartment, with stools pulled up to the kitchen island, and the Winter Olympics playing in the background.
I’ll tell you up front, making cassoulet is a big time, majorly huge endeavor. But in my book, the preparation of this special dish is the truest incarnation of the phrase labor of love. Each separate component is a substantial process in and of itself. I begin preparations for the duck confit at least two weeks before the big night. On top of this, I make home-made chicken stock, and marinate and roast a pork loin. I hand-make sausage patties, simmer white beans for hours, and braise a lamb shoulder. All in all, it’s at least a whole day’s work. Of course, you can choose to take short cuts at every stop, and save yourself a ton of time. But the way I look at it, the more labor you put into this dish, the more love you get out of it in the end. So I take every step slowly and carefully, celebrating the ingredients, honoring the process and relishing the whole experience. I don’t know what I love more, the final product, or the process behind it.
For the last five years, cassoulet has been a yearly tradition for us. And the details vary little from year to year. I always follow Julia Child’s recipe, and serve it alongside nothing more than a simple frisee salad and toasty French baguette. Tart tatin (an upside-down apple tart - also traditional French) is always for dessert. And most important, we always share it with exceptionally special guests of honor. This year we invited Ben’s Aunt Carol and Uncle Steve. Or as I usually find myself calling them, my Aunt Carol and Uncle Steve, because they’ve been so warm and generous and welcoming towards me, ever since I first became part of the family, it seems impossible to think that we haven’t been family all along.
And we always drink good wine with cassoulet. And we lucked out this year – Steve, who to put it lightly, knows a good thing or two about wine, brought two sensational bottles. With the cassoulet we sipped a Morgon Cru Beaujolais. It was sensational – the spicy, floral notes perfectly complemented the heady flavors of the cassoulet, and its hint of acidity gave just the right amount of brightness to counter the dish’s richness.
And an incredible Champagne-style California Blanc de Blancs perfectly complemented the cheese and grapes we had for hors d’oeuvres. Gosh, I love a good cheese course. For this night, I chose a pungent French blue, called Fourme D’Ambert and a classic triple-crème cheese called Brillat-Savarin, which is a lot like Brie, but creamier and, if you can believe it, way more delicious. With a few clusters of fresh grapes and a handful of toasted crostini, it was a fittingly Frenchy start for our cassoulet feast.
And for dessert, apple tart tatin - It doesn’t get more French than that. A ring of quartered apples bakes beneath a flaky, buttery pastry crust. When the top is perfectly golden, the pan is removed from the oven, inverted over a serving dish, and the rosy, caramelized apples end up on top. It’s simple and beautiful, and with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, just heavenly.
I know cassoulet seems like a daunting project. And I admit, it’s definitely a lot of work. But I hope I’ve convinced you of how in the end, all this work is absolutely worth it. And while time consuming, it’s not difficult. Each step, in and of itself, is easy. I’ve attempted below to illustrate the steps as clearly as possible, and have included the time line I usually follow. I would be just about the happiest blogger out there, were any of you to try it out. So, if/when you do take on this special endeavor, definitely fill me in. I can’t wait to hear about it!