Just right for the cold snap that’s sweeping across the northern hemisphere, the cassoulet, a mighty layering of beans and meat (opinions differ - mostly pork but sometimes lamb) of which the only unarguable inclusion is a joint from the confit-pot - preserved goose or duck - keeps the farming households of France's cold uplands warm in winter.
Traditionally served at midday on Sunday and inappropriate in the evening or on a work-day, owing to the need for a brisk walk or a snooze by the fire to allow plenty of time for a good digestion. Beans can be something of a challenge, digestion-wise.
Discussion of the what, why and wherefore leads to fisticuffs in bars, so don't get into any arguments in Castelnaudary, or Toulouse, or Carcassone, where the inhabitants will defend their own version to the death. Which is before we even touch on the superiority of the beans of Soissons as sold by the grower in Revel market - there are other beans, of course, and you can buy ready-cooked in a tin. Each to his own.
But when you buy your beans in the market in Revel (as I always did when my children were educated for a full school year in the CES in Castelnaudary), the bean should still be a little bendy: a bean that lacks flexibility is certainly last year's - or (worse) from the year before - and will take twice as long to soften.
A one-pot dish that takes its name from the container in which it's cooked - traditionally, an unglazed earthenware pot - is deep-bellied and wide-mouthed to allow for a crust to form on the beans. Once the dish was assembled (a situation requiring top-heat only), it could be taken to the village baker's oven on Saturday evening and collected in the morning for the midday meal on Sunday.
My neighbours, self-sufficient farmers with a sideline in fixing farm-machinery, fattened up their own geese (two for the market, two for themselves) on walnuts left over from home-distilling the post-prandial digestif, eau-de-vie de noix. The birds that were sold in the market were plucked and cleaned, but the fattened liver was left in place - buyer beware.
While my neighbours potted up the liver and prepared their own confit themselves, in Castel in 1978, many of the mothers at the schoolgate took their own casserole to the traiteur and had it ready-prepared. The containers varied - I was not the only one bringing along a battered Le Creuset - but the size of the casserole, wide-mouthed and deep enough for the beans to remain soft and juicy, dictated the number the dish would feed and was priced accordingly.
For a vegetarian version (don't tell the neighbours), replace the non-veggie elements, including confit, with thick slabs of a meaty mushroom - cépes are perfect- fried a la bordelaise with garlic and parsley in oil (walnut is right for the region, olive oil will do). Include another layer of sliced potato cooked as above with the addition of pitted black olives. And another of slow-cooked, lightly browned sliced onion, maybe with thyme and oregano. For the final baking, finish with a topping of crisply-fried roughly-crushed breadcrumbs and roughly-crushed walnuts.
Leftovers: Reheat everything gently in a heavy frying pan with enough oil to stop sticking, and let it bubble away, flipping the crust occasionally, till the base browns and crisps. Serve with a salad of lamb's lettuce and young dandelion-leaves (best right now, before they form buds).
I'm delighted I found your site, Elisabeth. Your paintings are wonderful. I love watercolor it's so portable. When I travel, the first thing I pack is my watercolor box, and then my clothes. Love Cassoulet, I make a lovely version of it, don't mention that to the French.
Love your watercolours. It’s been a while since I cooked a cassoulet as 3 out of our 4 kids have flown the nest. Tempted to try a veggie version as suggested