For those of you who don’t know much about the subject, you may say that cassoulet is a bean and duck stew. Others like Julia Child described cassoulet like this. “Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba.”
I happen to agree with Julia, cassoulet is definitely an over-the-top stew made with beans and duck. But to say that cassoulet is a bean and duck stew is like saying escargot are simply snails. One just doesn’t describe some of the best foods of the world in such unflattering terms. However, there is real truth in Childs description. Cassoulet is a super rich, fat saturated, one-dish meal built of strategy, flavour and overall strength.
“It’s super rich,” says cassoulet master Thierry Clement. Thierry is chef and owner of Paris Crêpes Café (pariscrepescafe.com) in Niagara Falls. It just happens to be a stormy January day and my eyes pop as I watch him pull a tub of solid white duck fat out of the fridge. Every year Thierry holds a special cassoulet celebration for a large group of make-believe Manitoba lumberjacks. It’s not something Thierry can easily put on the restaurant’s regular menu simply because it takes two days to prepare. So he steals a few days during the coldest time of the year to make the king of all stews for those who will appreciate it.
“You need to have the right ingredients,” says Thierry. He uses the thin skinned Lauragais beans that have been hand picked from the south west of France, the region near Toulouse that is known for the best foie gras. Thierry soaked them overnight in the same kitchen as bubbling water was transforming into a delicious stock from a whole chicken, two pork hocks, a bundle of herbs and plenty of vegetables.
Cassoulet started in the region of Languedoc as a humble peasant dish of dried beans cooked with various sausages and preserved meats and now there are three towns all claiming to be the originators of the one true cassoulet. Toulouse, Castelnaudary, and Carcassonne. The cassoulet from Toulouse uses tomatoes, in Carcassone they favour lamb and Thierry’s style, Castelnaudary uses pork and duck. “It’s the best,” says Thierry.
Thierry begins pulling bowls of meat from the refrigerator. One has huge mounds of salted pork belly, another cubes of pork shoulder, there are glistening links of sausages in one and duck breasts piled high in another. He lines them up on the counter like soldiers ready for battle and heats as many skillets on his massive stove, flames lapping the sides of the skillets. He spoons heaps of duck fat into each and it turns transparent and puddles. Thierry laughs and answers the one question that no one dare ask, “I wouldn’t use anything else.”
Carefully he puts chunks of cold meat in the hot skillets and they begin to scream, sizzle and spit. The beautiful sounds fill the kitchen and make my mouth water. I watch as the cold hard fat of the pork belly begins to turn opaque, glisten and before long, turn dark brown and crunchy around the edges. The pan is so hot it takes literally minutes to sear all sides of the cubed meats. Thierry is only adding flavour at this point; he’s not interested in cooking the meat thoroughly. Once he’s happy with the brown crispy edges on the meats, he begins to fill clean bowls with the hot meat. Once empty, he turns around, tips the empty skillets and the pan juices flow into the still simmering broth adding richness to flavour.
Thierry is a master at building flavours in all of his dishes and he knows it’s a matter of knowing what to save and what to throw out. “When I was cooking in England, one day the chef walked into the kitchen and announced he’d prepared the lamb roast and then threw out all the pan juices. Like he was proud of it or something – I thought I was going to kill him!”
Now that the meat-browning job is done, Thierry takes a break. He reaches high up on a shelf that only he can reach and pulls down a few brown, terra cotta bowls. “These are proper cassoulet bowls,” he says proudly. Thierry explains that the word cassoulet does not come from the word casserole as many believe. The name is derived from the special earthenware bowls used to cook cassoulet called a cassole. On a recent trip home to France, Thierry brought a dozen clay cassole back just for this special evening. He’s beaming.
It’s mid afternoon and Thierry is inspecting his broth. He stands still, tastes slowly, closes his eyes and lets his senses consume him. He looks pretty happy. He begins removing the meats from the broth and talks more to himself than to me when he says, “this will be my lunch for the rest of the week. Pork hocks with mustard, carrots with duck fat and chicken with warm bechamel”.
He strains the giant pot of broth through an equally large steel sieve. He puts the broth back on the stove and adds the beans. “I need to watch because I only want to cook them until they are still dense”, he explains because “we still have a long way to go.” What Thierry knows but doesn’t say is that when beans cook, they soak up the liquid they’re cooked in. Knowing this, Thierry doesn’t want to over saturate the beans with stock, he needs to make sure he reaches a halfway point of saturation so the beans are capable of soaking up the beautiful richness that is yet to come.
When the time is right, the beans are drained. His cassole bowls line the centre workstation in the kitchen with the seared meats right behind them. Thierry starts with a slice of pork fat and places it on the bottom of each of the bowls. “This will melt away into delicious,” he predicts. Then he heaps spoonful’s of beans over the fat, pushes a cube of seared pork belly, pork shoulder, sausage and duck breast into the beans. He ladles broth and warm demi glass into the bowls, drizzles a bit of milky-white duck fat over top while justifying, “beans need fat”. More to the point, the beans need more flavour.
Thierry reaches into the refrigerator for his secret ingredient. He smears a concoction of minced pork and garlic onto each bowl, “it will melt into the cassoulet and taste marvelous!” Thierry takes a step back and studies his dozen cassole bowls filled with beans and studded with seared meats as meticulously as a painter studies his paintings.
Satisfied, he pops them all into the oven for a few hours of baking so the beans can soak up the new juices and fats around them. Thierry will check them and add more fatty juices each half hour of their time in the oven. Cassoulet is not a dish for the faint of heart. You need a hearty appetite, a finely tuned palette and complete awareness of all of your senses.
As the dinner reaches near, one long harvest table gets dressed in the main dining room. It becomes a magical table, tall wine glasses catch the light of the only window not covered with burgundy velvet draperies and sultry Parisian jazz music plays low in the dimly lit room. It’s a room deserving of a special meal.
As the guests settle around a table flush with wine, a first course of foie gras comes out of the kitchen. This is going to be a night of sinfully rich foods. Like the opening act in a night club, the main attraction finally arrives. Steaming, glistening, heaping bowls of thick, rich cassoulet. It acts more like risotto and tastes more like heaven than any stew ever could. The seductive texture seeps across the palate like velvet, the soft, toothy beans yielding to the pressure of every bite and it becomes more satisfying, more relaxing, more comforting.
This is a rare meal that thankfully is no longer relegated to peasants and Manitoba lumberjacks. It seems the perfect meal to comfort the insides while the snow blows outside. It happens only once a year in Niagara and if you love good food, you must experience this at least once in your lifetime. As Pascal in the movie, The Big Night declared of the most glorious meal he’d ever eaten, “It was so f-ing good, I’ll have to kill myself!”
Written By: Lynn Ogryzlo