Cassoulet: Or, How to Survive a February Birthday
I HATE JANUARY. There, I’ve said it. One should not wish one’s life away, but after nearly nine years of living in my normally-beloved adopted home of London, I feel qualified to say that I’d be perfectly happy to move right from Christmas to February.
This past January was the wettest in English history, raining nearly every day.
And while February is often just more of the same, it’s enlightened by my birthday, early in the month. My foodie friends always say, “Happy Birthday, hope somebody’s cooking for you today!” But those who know me best know that I am never happier than when I’m in the kitchen, and my birthday is no exception. The only question is whether to have a blow-out, candlelit dinner for a dozen girlfriends, or a boozy, lazy Saturday lunch for a nice assortment of friends and family.
And of course: what to cook?
This year I knew exactly what I needed to pull me out of the wet, windy, dismal winter. Cassoulet! The ultimate French casserole, named for the earthenware covered dish in which it is traditionally cooked, brings together some of the world’s finest flavors: duck, lamb, pork, bay leaf, white wine, garlic, and BEANS, glorious BEANS.
Cassoulet is an all-day labor of love, and best if it is cooked the day before you want to eat it, to allow the personality of the dish to develop. It is also one of history’s most controversial dishes, because everyone’s cassoulet is different and personal, and deeply perfect for that person. There is even an Academy of Cassoulet! I have applied to join, but so far have heard no reply. Somehow I am not surprised; I am not nearly cool enough to be a scholar of cassoulet.
Cassoulet is an all-day labor of love.”
The subject is a heated one, not the least because some cooks are deeply proud of the many long processes involved in classic cassoulet, and other cooks are keen to simplify the recipe to make it more accessible. I like to think that my recipe falls somewhere in between these two approaches, maintaining the savory flavors but not making the work involved overly onerous. When I lived in France as a 16-year-old student, I was given a sheaf of recipes by my host family, including one for cassoulet, and although I’ve messed about with those original instructions, just looking at the iconic French handwriting makes me smile, more than 30 years later.
Cassoulet evolved in southern France, in towns like Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudry. Although it is often described as peasant food, a “making-do in the kitchen” dish, because of its humble, long-lasting ingredients like preserved meats, root vegetables and dried beans, in my experience it is far from humble. Every recipe for cassoulet calls for “Toulouse sausages,” for duck legs, for a cut of fatty lamb. In London, these ingredients can be found in any supermarket, which makes cassoulet very easy.
But in my simple, country Connecticut town, where I spend Christmas and New Year, these ingredients are not obtainable except by mail-order, which requires thinking ahead. That’s how I learned to make my own Toulouse sausages – necessity being the mother of invention – but even my creativity cannot conjure up duck or lamb out of thin air, so when I forgot to place a duck order this year, my wished-for New Year’s Eve cassoulet had to be postponed, and for what better occasion than my birthday?
I spent a very pleasant blinking morning riding around my little village, picking up carrots, celery, onions, fresh bay leaves and plenty of haricot beans at my local greengrocer “Two Peas in a Pod,” then to the brand-new Barnes outpost of the heavenly baker Gail’s, for a couple of baguettes. Then to the friendly and helpful J. Seal Family Butchers to collect my massive order of duck legs, neck fillet, pork belly. “What’s the best pork cut for Toulouse sausages, would you say?” I ask. “Why, love, we have Toulouse sausages right here in the case,” Bob says. “No, no, I have to make my own, everything,” I insist. I can see “crazy American” in his eyes, but he just smiles and reaches into the case for a lovely hunk of pork shoulder, and a tiny plastic bag of fresh casings. “Enjoy your cassoulet, and Happy Birthday!” Bob calls after me.
So I chop, simmer, fry, mince, stuff, stir and bake all day, watching the rare sun go overhead in my skylight. Avery comes home from school and photographs the process for me, enjoying my birthday lunch a day early since she cannot be with us on the day.
As Julia Child famously said, “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.”
Not being able to lay my hands readily on a such a starving athlete, I was happy to gather around my table my hungry husband, my delicate-looking but most appreciative friend Elspeth, and our dear neighbors Susan and James, always happy to gather around the table for whatever dish might emerge from the oven.
The cassoulet went into the oven to heat, to be stirred several times, each time breaking a sort of olive-oil/duck fat crust, then going back into the oven to become an extraordinary amalgam of all the most savoury flavors in the world.
We held aloft our glasses of Prosecco, and I opened my presents, and then we sat down to the fragrant stew, to second–and third–helpings, with just a towering salad of spicy rocket to accompany it.
Whether one calls it peasant food, a homely casserole, or, as I do, the most delicious labor of love in my repertoire–cassoulet says to me, “There are bright spots even in February.” Happy Birthday to me!
Have you ever attempted to prepare cassoulet? It sounds delicious to us, does it to you?
Photo credit: Avery Curran (food) and John Curran (birthday cake)
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