My Cassoulet Obsession
I can pinpoint almost to the day the first time I ate cassoulet. It was the month of September, 1994. It would be the third week of that month, within a few days one side or the other of the 18th.
I know this because my now-ex and I were in Paris for our one-year wedding anniversary.
It was the day we landed, and “jet lagged” hardly begins to describe it — it’s a loooong flight from San Francisco to Paris. We landed in the morning, and we weren’t going to be able to check into our accommodations until much later in the day.
So we had the brilliant idea to just walk around Paris all day — lugging all our stuff — hoping the excitement would stave off exhaustion.
It sort of worked. I had never been to Paris before; he had only been briefly, many years prior, on a trip where he had no control over the itinerary.
We took a taxi from the airport to the Île Saint-Louis, right in the center of the city, and began exploring. It wasn’t long before we needed sustenance. We found an adorable, quintessential Parisian café, went in, and studied the menu.
Oh, sorry, the carte.
I was trying so hard to be sophisticated. You see, this was only one year into my being a trophy wife. I knew I didn’t belong there, but I wanted to belong there, and damn it, I was going to try.
I’d taken one year of high school French, plus a lot of Spanish; I didn’t understand how a simple café carte could be so bewildering. Plus, I was exhausted, so any brain I had wasn’t functioning all that well. And I was far too embarrassed and self-conscious to ask for an English-language menu, or for any help.
I saw a word that looked vaguely familiar. “Cassoulet.” That must be French for casserole, right? I like casseroles. I ordered it.
What came from the kitchen was the most amazing creation. A big hot dish of creamy white beans, smothered in various meats and sausages and — oh my god, that wasn’t chicken, it had to be duck — all under a crunchy-savory crust. It was rich and incredible and hearty and I ate up every bite of it. (This was before I had to work so hard to stay trophy-wife thin; I was pretty young then.) (Plus, we were on vacation! In Paris!)
And then I was sick for three days.
I mean, not sick sick, just…vaguely uneasy in the tummy. I probably hadn’t ever eaten anything so rich in my entire life, and my system just had no idea what to do with it. I grew up vegetarian; though I’d been eating meat for a few years by then, I’d never eaten anything remotely like that cassoulet.
The rest of the trip is kind of a blur, culinarily. Oh, I remember the basics: croissants (“chaud, s’il vous plaît”) and café au lait at the corner bar every morning; ice cream anytime; red wine and dry white wine and kir; discovering that we liked bistros better than stuffy restaurants.
But that cassoulet. Oh that cassoulet. I never forgot it.
And I never had another one quite like it. We didn’t ever go back to that first café — I guess my husband hadn’t liked what he’d gotten, whatever that might have been. We traveled to France a number of times after that anniversary trip, and I tried again, but nothing ever exactly matched up.
Forget ordering it in the U.S. I tried a few times, when I lived in Portland, Oregon; my now-husband and I had a favorite restaurant there that served very authentic French food, including crepes and salade niçoise and chicken cordon bleu and all that — but the few times they had a cassoulet special, it was…not right. A skimpy portion of undercooked white beans, a sad little sausage, a dry duck leg, all arranged on the plate as though they’d never met before that moment, and weren’t sure what they were supposed to do with one another. NOPE.
Now my husband and I live on an island, and we’re learning to make so many things for ourselves. Lemon curd; ice cream; shrub; almond cake. I can roast a chicken — good ole Costco rotisserie chickens are an hour ferry ride plus a half-hour drive away.
He bought me a cassoulet cookbook a few Christmases ago. It’s a lovely book, gorgeously illustrated, and tells the story of every ingredient and every piece of equipment in loving detail.
From this book, I learned about the cassole, the One True Vessel for making cassoulet. It must be deep, and wide — wider than it is tall — and made of thick clay, capable of holding heat; and it must have two handles, and a small pouring spout.
Several lengthy searches, both online and in brick-and-mortar stores, have yielded up the result that if we want to own such a vessel, our options are: 1) Go to France and buy one from the One True Vessel Makers, or 2) Commission one from a local potter and hope for the best.
Once I explored all that, I sort of gave up for a while.
But then I joined a bean club.
I Joined a Bean Club and Didn’t Tell My Husband
The funny thing is that he does all the cooking around here. But it turns out this is more complicated than that.
And in my first shipment came…cassoulet beans. Beautiful, creamy white Tarbais. “Classic Cassoulet Beans,” read the label.
Surely, it was a sign.
So I went back to the lovely book, and was again daunted. I made the caballero beans from my shipment, and then the black-eyed peas, and some popcorn.
I looked at the bag of cassoulet beans.
I thought about it. I read the posts in the bean club’s Facebook group.
And…someone posted a recipe for “Confit Chicken Thigh and Andouille Sausage Cassoulet.” I looked it over carefully. I’d already seen other people mention how chicken thighs work well in the Cassoulet Universe. I like chicken thighs; they’re one of my favorite meats to barbecue.
I thought, I could make this.
So I did.
I made the chicken confit part mid-week. (Believe it or not, our island grocery store had a jar of juniper berries. They were eight dollars, but hey! Now I can make gin; the confit only needed four berries.) Then I stuck it in the fridge.
Last night, the rest of the story began. I got out my pots.
Yes, four pots.
The big red dutch oven is where I cooked the Tarbais beans. I probably overcooked them — I had pre-soaked them, not realizing how much faster they would be than the caballeros. Oh well. Probably not a disaster.
The small red/orange dutch oven is the chicken confit.
The brown dutch oven (half out of the picture) is where the whole business was going to go, when it went into the oven.
The skillet contains some of the fat from the confit, ready to fry up the onions and garlic and tomatoes and beans and etc.
(The tomatoes were a very funny prank, actually. “Add tomatoes, crushing with your hands,” the directions say. Ha! ha! I crushed four canned whole tomatoes with my hand. Three crushed fine; the fourth bathed me in tomato juice.)
After I cleaned up from my tomato bath, I marched forward. I simmered, I preheated, I nestled. Soon, my concoction was ready to go into the oven.
And then we waited.
“It’s smelling very good down there,” my husband remarked, when I went upstairs to tell him dinner would be ready soon.
“I sure hope so!”
It came out of the oven looking gorgeous. Sizzling and fragrant, the bread crumbs making a nice golden crust, the chicken skins crispy: Oh, it looked good.
And nuclear-hot! We let it rest a bit while he made a salad.
When we dished it out and took it to the table, it looked just perfect. You couldn’t tell any more that the beans were overdone; it had all come together in a perfect-looking harmony.
The proof, however, would be in the tasting.
Reader, it was amazing.
No, it wasn’t the dish I had in Paris in September 1994. Chicken is not duck; my oval dutch oven with the silly 1960s-graphic lid is not a cassole; I am not a Frenchwoman who has been making this dish — from beans I grew in my garden and birds I raised myself — since I was a girl.
But, oh, oh, oh, was it good.
It was hearty and warm and rich and soothing and delicious…and my husband loved it as much as I did.
We’re having the rest of it tonight. I added more bread crumbs and put it back in the oven; I can smell it now, ready to pull out and scoop nuclear-hot onto our waiting plates.
Sadly, I used my entire supply of Tarbais beans on this dish. You can be sure I went online to my bean purveyors last night, intending to order more; alas, they are sold out. (So I ordered more black-eyed peas and more caballeros, because of course I did.)
The experience of a dish, as I am not the first nor even the hundredth or thousandth person to point out, it grows in your memory; it takes on larger-than-life proportions; it comes to stand for all the things that were happening in your life when you ate that notable dish, things generally and specifically; my first cassoulet on the first day of my first trip to Paris on the anniversary of my first year of marriage to a complicated man who wasn’t a bad man but who ultimately (and probably always) was not the right man for me: that cassoulet can really no longer be said to be about white beans and poultry (however amazingly confit-ed) and sausage and lengthy skillful stewing and seasoning and baking, and perfectly turned out, alongside a glass of sturdy red wine.
No, for me, cassoulet is all the hope of that marriage, of that new life that I was never going to fit into but damn it I tried; it’s the desire to be the kind of person who travels to Paris, learns Paris, knows Paris — but mostly because that somehow meant something to me, something that was going to make me more okay in the eyes of other people. “We’re going to Paris.” “I bought this jacket in Paris.” Going to Paris is more than just getting on a plane and flying to another place. Going to Paris is not a thing that hippie kids who grew up poor get to do. (At least not like we did, my wealthy husband and I.)
I mean, Paris is marvelous, and I would love to go back someday; but going to Paris meant something else entirely. Something aspirational, yet always just out of reach.
Cassoulet was all that stuff, but it also was just about the yummiest thing I’d ever eaten. As a vegetarian hippie kid, I’d grown up on beans: but this was beans gone wild. This was beans and animal fat. And someone who knew how to put it all together and make it sing.
For me, reclaiming cassoulet — I won’t say conquering it, mastering it — I may never find a cassole, I may never go beyond this “riff on a classic cassoulet [which] skips most of the exotic ingredients and elaborate preparation,” but reclaiming the astonishing deliciousness, the surprise of that jet-lagged day, my first day in Paris, when I was so sure I didn’t belong anywhere in that story — that city, that marriage, that life — but I knew without a doubt that that dish belonged in my belly.
(Even if my belly did grumble about it for three days afterwards.)
My belly is happier now. It’s after dinner, the second night; it was at least as good left over and reheated as it was the first night. I belong in this life, figuring out all these things as I can — this marriage, these things I want to learn how to cook, these words I am writing — it’s all okay.
“…it’s all okay…with cassoulet…”
Shannon Page writes fantasy, horror, and mystery novels from her home on Orcas Island, Washington. She copy edits anything, enjoys wine and food, and has opinions that sometimes turn into articles. Occasionally she even sends out a newsletter.