Cassoulet or Cassolette?

Why do restaurants have such confusing menu’s? Heaven help you if you object if, after asking which one is being referred to, you are snootily informed that there is no difference between the two! Don’t dare say anything, just order something else. Else you may just get a vile bean stew made from tinned beans and stewing meat. (I was served that recently).

A cassolette is a dish made of porcelain, metal or glass. These serving dishes are used to present a variety of deserts or warm hors d’oeuvre s and even main courses. The food being served is loosely referred to as a cassolette. I have seen them used for entire meals at restaurants. I guess that is okay. One can then, reasonably, expect an interesting collection of warm fish, chicken, beef and even vegetarian dishes. Not all restaurants have to do everything according to the rules – it reflects the changing world and circumstances, as good food should.

A cassoulet is of Roman origin, but was presented as we now know it in the Languedoc (in France) and became really famous when it appeared in a restaurant in 1909. It is a French classic. Rick Stein made it famous on the BBC food channel, so one would expect that everyone in the restaurant trade would have, at the very least, knowledge of it’s existence before they put it on a menu. It consists, basically, of seventy percent Spanish haricot beans and thirty percent pork or mutton with some preserved goose if one can get it, never smoked meat, however.

There are many variations for which I am grateful because I love trying variations as long as one sticks to the basic principles and the golden breadcrumb crust is good. I do not believe that the goose is that essential, but it is absolutely delicious and elevates cassoulet to indescribable levels. The French might want to put me on a stake for saying so but there are substitutions that work almost as well.

One could go into the history of the dish and follow the rules and regulations, should one want to. If anyone really wants to know the details, ask. So important is this dish in France that the Etat Generaux de la Gastronomie Francais even issued a decree on the proportions of the dish – which coincide roughly with what I was taught. There are many organisations that control many foods and wines in France – a wonderful way to preserve a great heritage.

The simplest version that I know is inspired by Louis Cazals, an expert on Toulouse food. One can vary his one and use a recipe acceptable to Jewish readers where meat is substituted for salted cod which takes a good while to cook. I love it and have often come across it.

Soak white haricot beans for 12 hours, drain, wash and then boil in salted water for about an hour. They must not be soft. Wash and return them to a pot of boiling water. Add blanched and rolled up unsmoked bacon rounds, carrot rounds, garlic cloves and bouquet garnis. Now add a good French sausage and cook. On the side, brown a goose quarter lightly with two peeled and de-seeded tomatoes. When done, add this to the bean mixture and cook for a further two hours, give or take. You’ll know when it’s done and put into a glazed earthenware dish (strictly speaking you should use a cassole) but for today, the earthenware dish will do . Slice the sausage that you used and mix into the beans. Place a round of fresh sausage on top and press in lightly. Cover with grated breadcrumbs and bake in a slow oven. During the baking process, break the crust a few times and continue baking. There are a number of wines to have with this all over the world – to my mind, hearty and red and not too complicated should do the trick. Traditionally they served a Corbieres – or so a friend always told me.

The Regional Promotional Board of Castelnaudary, the heart of the cassoulet, has a recipe which specifies the type of bean, the cut of meat (pork and preserved goose liver) and uses only a garlic smeared cassole. It is the best I have ever tried. Should anyone want it I will happily provide it but since it may be off putting to any first time Cassoulet cook, I will not include it here. Cooking is for everyone and no recipe must be so strict that variations cannot be tried.

Since this is my blog, I feel free to express my opinion. Not so?

1 Comment

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One response to “Cassoulet or Cassolette?

  1. I don’t often do this, but do go to Anthony Bourdain’s blog – see link on my front page and have a look at his recipe there. It is outstanding and one of the best I have seen.

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