Beans. Versatile thing, beans. I grow a lot of them, both in variety and quantity. We usually put away about 20-30 pounds of dried beans a year, and eat the green ones fresh as they come in. And shell beans still remain my favorite thing out of the garden. It’s fair to say I am crazy about beans.
For all I grow, there are others I do not: lentils remain the prime example of pantry staples NOT from my gardens. Chickpeas too. Everything else, though: we eat about one dinner a week where beans are the primary part of the meal. Chili, baked, burgers, falafel, and soupsoupsoup! Warm lentils on cold salad, potted beans and chicken (rillettes, basically) on toast. Pasta e fagioli. We loves our beans.
But it’s only once during winter I make the dish that is the Queen of Beans. And I made it this weekend for friends.
Cassoulet. This one humble bean dish (for that is what it is: a dish of beans) has, etymologically at least, spawned the equally humble casserole, which, at least for us Americans, leaves a bit of a nostalgic tang in our mouths. Yes, indeed: the hot dish of Minnesota/the Dakotas and parts of Wisconsin and the casserole of all other points south have this one singular bean dish to thank for spawning the cream-of-mushroom, potato-chip-topped “casseroles” served on many dinner tables, church basement events, and potlucks. Can I say there’s hardly anything left to compare these two dishes other than their names? It’s true. One is a stew, one is a baked item. Both, though, find their origin in inexpensive, humble ingredients. You’ll probably not find a recipe, say, for truffle casserole.
I am incorrect in calling it “one singular bean dish.” Wars I am sure have been fought over less than the true recipe for cassoulet. Let us just say that the ancient southwestern French dish of this name is a bean stew baked in a cassole, which is a conical ceramic bowl with a base half the diameter of its rim, and a height that is about three quarters of its rim. (Does that description make sense? I will simply say it’s baked in a very pretty bowl that gives it a lot of surface area to give it a nice, crisp, crumbly top.) It is a bean dish that is normally cooked with preserved and fresh meats (typically, but again, not always, duck confit and simple fresh pork sausage). The beans however are a constant: they’re a very large white haricot bean called the tarbais. I am trying to find a source in the US: anyone?
If you’ve read me long enough or if you know me personally, you’ll know I am a cheapskate who’s prone to going to extreme lengths to make things herself. And making this wasn’t hard, just slightly time-consuming. I used my own goose, beans, spices and veg. I found local pork and pork sausage. In other words, it was peasant in spirit, as I was the land peasant who grew the goods, and my friend the potter threw the cassole.
And leftover cassoulet? What leftover cassoulet?