Cassoulet- [kas-uh-ley; French ka-soo-le]
1. A white-bean stew of French origin, often containing pork, mutton, garlic sausage, and preserved goose or duck.
Having worked in the professional culinary industry for nearly 15 years, I've seen both sides of the "back of the house". In a restaurant, there are two territories occupied by two distinctly different personnel. On one side, there are cooks. On the other, bakers. Bakers come in to work early, get their work done and go home. When the bakers are nearly finished, the cooks come in. Cooks are the night owls of the food biz. Bakers are the early birds, quietly crafting sweet treats, and watching the entertainment that starts when the cooks come in.
I've worked in many kitchens. Usually as a baker. Cooks and bakers are as different as night and day. Bakers must follow recipes to achieve consistent, high-performing products. Cooks throw things together, tasting as they go, with endearing, reckless abandon. Although, in today's corporate-owned, profit-at-all-costs, portion control restaurant atmosphere, recipe adherence on the savory side of kitchens is becoming more common, most house owners encourage freedom and creativity from their cooks and chefs. Thank goodness.
Over the years, I watched cooks throw together what they called cassoulet. Usually, it was a convoluted mixture of whatever was left in the cooler or pantry, with some spices and vegetables tossed in. Often, it was crowned as the "special" of the day, resembled more of a stew, and tasted wonderful. But it was most certainly not a cassoulet.
Cassoulet, like so many other iconic regional dishes, has its origins in the poor countryside. Historically, country people had many resources, but little variety. They sourced what was immediately around them, usually ranging no more than half a day's walk to procure anything. Most country fare is simple in nature, but rich in flavor, and nutritious. Modern food gurus would say that country meals are "rustic cuisine that celebrates individual products and elevates our appreciation for the simple..." or something posh like that. To me, country people are the first, and most enduring proponents of what is now known as the Green Movement. Traditionally isolated, rural populations had no choice but to use what they had and not waste a bit of it. Cassoulet is a perfect example of that concept.
Today's recipe is called Quick Cassoulet. That's because classic French cassoulet is anything but quick. Again, a perfect country meal: mixed together in a sturdy pot, sealed, and set on low heat to cook slowly while everyone heads out to the fields or forests to work. I still prefer this method- and its easily doable, even in today's rush-rush lifestyle, using a slow-cooker. This recipe card is from the 70s, and uses convenience items like canned beans and seasoning packets. Still, I don't believe in viewing any food history with disdain. These recipes all correspond to American social and political history, reminding us in a tangible way of our shared past.
If you try this recipe, think about researching the real French Country Cassoulet. Head out to your local farmer's market for some nice plump duck (if you're really lucky, you might even find some duck sausage!), and immerse yourself in the beauty of your food, while you reconnect with its rich provenance.
The Rediscovered Recipe Box #10- Quick Cassoulet
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1 pound boneless lean pork
1 pound boneless lamb
2 chicken breasts, skinned, boned
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
3 1-pound cans cannellini beans
1/4 cup minced parsley
2 cups dry white wine
3 env. beef broth seasoning
Cut meats and chicken into 1-inch slices or cubes. Brown sausage in a large skillet. Add pork, lamb, chicken, onion and garlic; cook until golden. Stir in drained beans, parsley, wine and seasoning. Turn into 3-quart casserole; bake at 350 deg. 1 1/2 hours. Makes 8 servings.
Six cups drained cooked dried large white beans may be substituted for canned cannellini beans.