On January 9, 2000, my now-husband Cy and I had our first date. Little did we know that 15 years later, January 9 would also be claimed as National Cassoulet Day – presumably gaining a little more attention than we did by going to a movie and then to dinner. But we got the day first. And, to be honest, the way we chose January 9 as our first date came about far more organically than anything having to do with a hashtag holiday celebrating cassoulet.
When I first heard about National Cassoulet Day, I figured it must at least have been a product of some regional food association in (or with links to) Southwestern France, where locals claim the dish originated. But no — as far as I can tell it was created by Alain Ducasse for his Restaurant Benoit in New York. And it morphed from being just one day into an entire week. The excuse given was the unpredictable nature of the weather in January in New York. One night of bad weather, and sacre bleu, you’ve missed it. Maybe so, but I’m sure that Ducasse and his fellow restaurateurs were happy to have a week-long excuse to drive people out to eat in early January, normally a slow time for dining out.
And even France’s yearly homage to cassoulet isn’t without its own marketing strategy. The town of Castelnaudary, which claims the honor of being Cassoulet Central, holds a festival each August that has definitely been around longer than just a couple of years. This seems a little less hashtag-gy at first glance. Except that cassoulet is a winter dish. I suppose you could say that August is when the beans used in the dish get harvested. Or maybe some of the regional red wines get released then as well. But it’s not a stretch to think that the city elders of Castelnaudary thought it would be easier to attract people in August rather than in the dead of winter.
Although Castelnaudary claims to be the place that originated cassoulet, it’s not necessarily so. Other nearby towns and cities also make the claim. I recently read the cassoulet chapter in Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France, first published in 1983. Wolfert traveled from Carcasonne to Toulouse, trying cassoulet as she went and talking to chefs of the region’s restaurants. It’s a charming read, all the more since the chefs Wolfert met with both extol cassoulet as a local dish (with a marked preference for their local versions) and disparage it as peasant food at the same time. One chef was even so artfully dismissive as to send Wolfert to meet with a friend at her home to make cassoulet, because he claimed that cassoulet was a dish far better made at home than in a restaurant. (Apparently his restaurant was a little too fancy-pants to serve cassoulet but he didn’t want to say so outright. And perhaps there’s a little sexism there too, since most home cooks were likely to be women, at least at that time.)
Wolfert carefully reports what she saw and ate, and it’s interesting to read about the regional variations in the dish over a distance of about 60 miles. They all use white beans – except for one chef who claimed that cassoulet predates the introduction of white beans to France, so he uses fava beans instead. The range of meats is impressive, pretty much everything poultry from goose to duck to chicken, and various parts of the pig, some smoked, some not. And, of course, sausages. Some versions have lamb or mutton in them. But what really sets the various chefs and cooks off is whether or not to have bread crumbs on top. Some claim it’s absolutely traditional, while others say the opposite. Wolfert speculates that the bread crumb crust was a way to both stretch the dish to feed more people, and also prevent too much evaporation. The name cassoulet comes from the wide clay pot without a lid that it’s traditionally cooked in, called a cassole. Covering the cassoulet with the bread crumbs would allow it to cook for longer without drying out.
In the end, Wolfert presents a few different styles of cassoulet and encourages you to pick the things you like and make it your own. I came up with my version of cassoulet after eating it in France and trying different recipes, from Julia Child through The New Basics Cookbook. Most recipes call for partially cooking the beans in water and then mixing all the other ingredients together and cooking for a long time. I found that cooking the beans with various meats and chicken stock gives them enough flavor that entire dish doesn’t need to cook together for very long. I also do the final cooking in a roasting pan – which allows the browned chicken thighs I like to add to stay crispy on top. And I prefer not to use bread crumbs.
This is not an easy dish, although you don’t have to do much hands-on cooking. If you want to serve the cassoulet for dinner on Monday, January 9, start on Saturday night, January 7 by simply soaking the beans overnight. On Sunday, cook the beans in the slow cooker with a few other ingredients, and then refrigerate them. On Monday, brown the sausages and the chicken thighs, then bake everything together for a half hour.
I use dried cannellini beans, although you can use Great Northern or any other medium-sized dried white bean. I like Rancho Gordo and Zursun brands because they’re always the freshest, and you can find them in specialty markets all over. But the supermarket brands are fine too, just check the date and make sure they’re not too old. If the skins look wrinkled on the dried beans, it’s probably better to pass them up.
As far as meat goes, I like to cook my beans in chicken stock with cubed pork shoulder, a ham hock, and a duck leg. For sausages, I like half smoked, half unsmoked. But you can use any combination of meats you like. I have made a chicken/turkey version using turkey thigh meat instead of pork shoulder, smoked turkey wings instead of a ham hock, then various chicken and turkey sausages.
And, of course, there’s wine to serve with it. Cassoulet comes from the Languedoc, which produces more wine than any other part of France. So, in the spirit of “What grows together, goes together,” what can I do but offer some wine choices from the Languedoc? In fact, it was through a tweet by the Languedoc Wine Producers’ Association that I found out about National Cassoulet Day, so you know they’re on it. Red wines from the various official Languedoc appellations are made from Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan. The Château d’Assas Classique and Réserve we import have the appellation Grès de Montpellier, an official cru of the Languedoc. The Classique is Syrah and Grenache, and the Réserve also contains Mourvèdre.
But you’ll also find other red varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, and Merlot, in wines labeled Vin du Pays. We carry single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc wines from Domaine de Mairan. And some producers make combinations among the varietals in both categories. While Domaine Sainte-Cécile du Parc’s Notes Franches is a Vin du Pays made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot, their Notes d’Orphée is made from Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
Of course, you could go off the board and drink something else. But Cy and I know you’ll want to join us in celebrating our 17th first date anniversary by raising a glass, whether or not it’s from First Vine!
Serves 6 – 8
You can make this to serve on National Cassoulet Day Monday January 9, 2017, if you start soaking the beans Saturday night. If you forget, don’t worry – on Sunday you can cover the beans in a pot with two inches of cold water and add a tablespoon of salt. Bring the pot to a rolling boil and boil for 1 minute. Then turn off the heat, cover the pot, and let it sit for 1 hour. Drain and proceed to the bean-cooking step. I like to use a slow cooker to cook the beans, but you can also do it in a large pot on the stove if you prefer. Then on Monday, brown the various meats, and combine everything in a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes before serving.
1 pound dried cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed
1 pound boneless pork shoulder, big pieces of fat trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 duck leg and thigh (optional, but easier to find in grocery stores these days)
1 ham hock
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
6 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
6-8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
12 ounces Italian-style sausage, cut in 12 pieces
12 ounces smoked Kielbasa-style sausage, cut in 12 pieces
6-8 chicken thighs, bone-in and skin-on
Soaking the beans: Put the rinsed beans in a large pot or the crock of the slow cooker. Add enough cold water to cover by 2 inches, and let sit overnight or for 8 hours.
Cooking the beans: Drain the beans and put them in the crock of the slow cooker. Stir in the pieces of pork shoulder. Nestle the ham hock, duck leg, and the onion and garlic halves in the beans and pork. Add enough broth to cover the beans by 2 inches (it’s OK if the duck leg, ham hock, and vegetables stick out of the liquid). Add some cold water if 8 cups of broth aren’t enough to cover. Sprinkle on ½ teaspoon of salt and some ground pepper.
Cover the crock and cook on low for 4 hours. The beans should be tender – if not, cook for another hour on low. Remove the onion halves, the duck leg, and the ham hock. Drain the beans, pork, and garlic, reserving the liquid. Shred the meat from the duck leg and ham hock, then add those to the beans and pork shoulder. Refrigerate the beans and meat separately from the liquid.
Cooking the meat and assembling the cassoulet: The day you plan to serve the cassoulet, take the bean mixture and the liquid out of the fridge. In a large skillet, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and brown the sausages. Transfer the browned sausages to a bowl or plate. Sprinkle the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, then brown them well, starting skin-side down.
While the meats are browning, skim the fat from the surface of the liquid and discard. Pour the liquid into a large saucepan and bring it to the simmer. Put the beans and meat in a microwave-safe container (if they aren’t already) and heat them up to warm. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Pour the fat out from the skillet, then deglaze the skillet with a half cup of the stock liquid. Add the deglazing liquid back into the rest of the stock. Spread out the bean and meat mixture in a metal roasting pan or large ceramic baking dish with high sides. Push all the pieces of sausage down into the beans, then the chicken thighs skin-side up. Carefully pour the hot liquid into the pan to just about cover the beans – but you want to make sure the chicken skin stays dry. Bake for 30 minutes, checking after 20 minutes to make sure there’s still a little liquid in the pan: when you shake the roasting pan you should see things move a little. If they don’t move, add some more liquid. After 30 minutes, you should see what looks like a skin forming over the beans – this is fine (and, in fact, just what you’re looking for). You can cook it for up to 10 more minutes if it doesn’t seem hot enough.
Let the cassoulet cool for 5 minutes, then serve.