I used to know this couple, Chris and Carol, who would throw a big party each year and invite all their friends. Although we guests would bring wine, beer, or whatever we wanted to drink, our hosts would provide champagne and food. Each year they prepared a spread of food that centered around one major dish. One year the main course was cassoulet. I don’t remember much about the cassoulet, maybe due to time—it’s been almost twenty years—or maybe due to the amount of alcohol I consumed, but I do remember not liking it much. What I do remember is that the beans seemed to lack flavor and the meats—duck and sausage I think—were overcooked. (But the party was still fun and I had a great time!)
Until I started to write this article, I still had not eaten cassoulet again. I like all of the dish’s components, but I’d never considered fixing them together. One reason may be that I delight in recipes that can easily be prepared for just two people; cassoulet is a dish for the masses that requires many hours to prepare. But maybe I can determine a recipe for preparing cassoulet just for two—more about that later.
Now, for some unknown reason, it seemed like the right time to add cassoulet to my repertoire. I had heard that the dish dates back to the period of the Hundred Years’ War (1337 to 1453) between France and England, but I couldn’t find any mention of it printed before the latter part of the nineteenth century. This jives with Hordé who writes: “Le mot est emprunté à la fin de XIXe siècle au languedocien cassoulet, « plat cuit au four », ....”1 (The word is appropriated from the end of 19th century to apply to the Languedoc cassoulet, “a dish cooked in the oven”, ....) Or in other words, the name was first applied to the dish near the end of the nineteenth century. He doesn’t state—nor does anyone else—what the dish was called before then. The earliest mention that I found of the word cassoulet was in a dictionary from 1887 where it was described as a quarter of preserved goose or pork shank with beans, cooked in a cassolo in an oven.2 The same dictionary also defines a cassolo as a large dish with two handles used to cook rice or wheat, and for preparing cassoulet in the village of Castelnaudary.3
As Guy describes it: “The cassoulet is indisputably native to Castelnaudary. A certain Bringuier perfected the recipe, under rather indefinite circumstances. It is made with fresh pork, ham or pork knuckle, some sausage meat and fresh bacon rind. In Carcassonne, they add a shortened leg of mutton and, in the hunting season, a partridge. In Toulouse, in addition to these basic ingredients, they add some breast of pork, country sausage, mutton and especially preserved goose or duck (confit d’oie ou de canard). As for beans, they consider beans from Cazères and from Pamiers the best, not to mention the white beans from Alsace.”4
One common element of all cassoulets is that they all contain beans, usually of the variety referred to as coco blanc, but many other dried, white beans are also called for in the different recipes I found. Some recipes emphatically state that this variety or that is the only authentic bean to use. Other recipes just simply call for haricots (beans). Most of the recipes will call for saucisse de Toulouse (plain, fresh pork sausage) and or saucisson à l’ail (fresh garlic sausage). Fresh or salted pork belly and pork skin are also common. Some will call for goose or duck, either fresh or confit. Some call for mutton, pork, or lamb meat. Some recipes call for stirring the crust that forms on the top of the dish during the final baking three, five, or seven times during the baking. This seems like a ritual that formed—along with the crust—over time. There may be a more practical reason for this process. The heat and construction of the oven and the size of the bowl holding the cassoulet could set up a situation where the top of the beans will burn before the contents become heated through. Many cassoulets include the name of a locale in the recipe title, the most common being cassoulet de Castelnaudary. This is certainly one of those cases, common in cooking, where everyone has their own recipe.
Somewhere in my travels, I learned from one source that the women of the Languedoc prepared their cassoulets and then took them to the baker for cooking. After the baker was done using his wood-fired, earth and masonry oven for baking the day’s bread, he would place the cassoulets in the oven to cook from the residual heat. Because conventional ovens are a rather modern invention and not common in many houses until the mid-twentieth century, this story could have some credence to it. It would also help explain why cassoulet is usually cooked in a low oven.
Recipes for cassoulet were quite common in cookbooks of the first half of the twentieth century, both those for the home cook and those for restaurants, although this is definitely a homestyle dish. In the latter half of the century, cassoulet recipes are less common and I found none in the many compendiums written by modern three-star chefs.
This brings me to my second encounter with cassoulet. There used to be a small restaurant in our town that was operated by a French-trained American woman who occasionally served cassoulet. Once I was discussing the dish with her and she said that she had to modify the recipe from how she had learned it in her training—she had to make it low-fat—Americans would not eat the real thing. (This was right in the middle of the low-fat craze, which, for some people, hasn’t ended yet.) Since I like fat, I never tried her version of cassoulet—there were too many other good dishes on her menu. Because that original discussion, other French chefs I’ve talked with in America have made similar comments about having to “slim down” recipes.
In reviewing cassoulet recipes from many sources published during the last 125 years I found a wide range—most claiming some pedigree of authenticity. I settled on one to try from a book published in 1929: Les Belles recettes des provinces françaises5. I chose this particular recipe because it seemed the most straight forward. Many of the recipes I reviewed appeared to be overly complex, something I would not expect from a recipe with supposedly a simple origin.
The above recipe, when served with bread and maybe a salad on the side, is sufficient for 6 to 8 diners. But what if you only want to prepare cassoulet for two? If we deconstruct the above recipe, we see that the completed dish is simply cooked meats in cooked white beans flavored with tomatoes and finished with a baked crust of bread crumbs. Thus it becomes possible to prepare individual cassoulets. The following example is for two portions.