Ingredients: Cassoulet Showdown

Is it possible to make a quick-and-dirty version of cassoulet, a dish that prides itself on a tradition of taking forever to prepare? Daniel Adler compares two recipes.

Google Translate is surprisingly poetic in its handling of Anatole France’s tale, recounted in Larousse Gastronomique, of a legendary French stew that bubbled away for twenty years:

[There is] added from time to time in the pot, goose, or pork, sometimes a piece of sausage or some beans, but it is always the same cassoulet. The base remains, and this ancient and valuable base which gives the dish a quality comparable to those amber tones if especially in the flesh that characterize the works of old Venetian masters.

Cassoulet is a stew of white beans baked with a variety of meats, originating from southwestern France. Despite its origins as a humble peasant dish, today it is championed by the Universal Cassoulet Academy, an international group of chefs who are “committed to promoting cassoulet, its ingredients and its cultural heritage” (they’ve even composed a jaunty theme song for the dish). Local varieties abound along the “Cassoulet Trail,” which runs from the Mediterranean shores of Narbonne inland to Toulouse, so the Academy reassures us that there is no single recipe for cassoulet. Of course, one ingredient is always essential: time.

The recipes I found for the dish are a case in point. The Silver Palate Cookbook cautions that cassoulet “is neither quick nor inexpensive to prepare… the various cooking steps can be spread over 3 or 4 days.” Julia Child states that “you can prepare it in one day, but two or even three days of leisurely on-and-off cooking make it easier.” Child was always unapologetic about the time and energy needed to execute her meals, and her recipe for cassoulet is no exception: it “makes no attempt to cut corners, for the concoction of a good cassoulet is a fairly long process.”

As someone who learned most of my basic kitchen techniques from Mark Bittman, the champion of quick-and-healthy home cooking, preparing a dish that intentionally takes a long time was novel and quaint. In fact, Bittman himself offers a recipe for a 40-minute cassoulet. He’s far too versed in the heritage of good food to claim his version can replace the original: online he admits that “the idea of preparing [cassoulet] in 40 minutes or less is heresy,” and in How to Cook Everything he concedes that the recipe is “not ’real’ cassoulet, but glorified beans accentuated by whatever is handy.”

So here was an opportunity to compare two very different approaches to a well-known dish. On one side was Child’s traditional method, emphasizing process and technique (while paying little heed to health concerns), and on the other side was Bittman’s contemporary approach of balancing wholesomeness with convenience. To level the playing field, I bought high-quality ingredients (although I doubt French peasants spent $75 at Whole Foods and Gelson’s to make cassoulet) and used them in both recipes, so that the key variable would be time. Knowing there would be two hearty stews in need of eating and critiquing, my parents, grandparents, sister and brother-in-law were invited to help me judge.

Photo by Daniel Adler

The first day of cooking was all about bringing out the flavors of each ingredient. It was an entirely Julia-centric, meat-filled day. Once the white beans had been cooked and soaked on their own, they were re-simmered with slabs of bacon and some ground pork. In another pot, shreds of duck and mutton simmered with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and white wine. Absent the suggested cup of goose fat, I sliced fat off of duck legs, threw it in a pot on the grill, and used it to saute cracked lamb shanks. I proudly announced this exotic preparation with a status update on Facebook, but inwardly I experienced a moment of doubt, and it wasn’t just because my forearm was getting burned by gurgling spats of duck fat. I felt a mild sense of unwillingness for the richness of the food to come — call it meat fatigue. A dainty bouquet garni of herbs, fashioned with cheesecloth and kitchen string and tossed in with the soaking beans, stood meek against what seemed like scores of bones and scraps. Meanwhile, Bittman’s beans were cooked and soaked, and then left to sit overnight in the refrigerator.

Photo by Daniel Adler

On the second day I stepped back in to the kitchen, expecting the flavors from the first day to merge into a multilayered, subtle fusion. The process began with — what else? — more meat. Sausages were freshly cooked, and then layered with bacon atop a substratum of beans. Then more beans, another layer of meat (the previous day’s mutton and duck), another layer of beans, a second layer of sausage, topped with a final layer of beans and sealed with a dusting of breadcrumbs and parsley. At this point, Child’s recipe had led to massive meat overload, but it was also one trip to the oven away from being ready to serve, and it looked gorgeous. Meanwhile, the tomatoes for Bittman’s recipe had only just began to bubble. The pot looked neglected so I snuck in a spoonful of duck fat to perk it up.

Photo by Daniel Adler

As Child’s cassoulet baked away in the oven, I turned my attention to the Bittman version. As the beans cooked with stock, spices, and tomatoes, I browned yet another pound of sausage, and added it to the pot along with a kind of meat not yet encountered — chunks of pork shoulder. When the second-to-last step instructed me to “cut a crosshatch pattern into the skin side of the duck breast,” before cooking it and adding it to the beans, I snapped. Even though the meal was so close to completion, I couldn’t bear to add another portion of meat. I reasoned that a couple of missing duck breasts weren’t going to ruin this version, and with enough food to feed an army already prepared, including duck for experimentation’s sake would have been wasteful.

Had this last-minute decision just ruined the method on which the experiment rested? I told no one but my father that the duck had been scratched at the last minute. Once both cassoulets were finished and served, the family sat down to eat. Everyone put both types of cassoulet in their bowl, tasted each, and shared their impressions. We reached the consensus that Child’s recipe benefitted from the extra time in terms of texture — the beans were much softer, the rest of the ingredients broken down and then brought back together under extra hours of carefully applied heat. Bittman’s beans, while soaked for almost an entire day, were still a shade undercooked, a trace too raw and fibrous.

But in terms of flavor, the result was a tie. Child’s cassoulet was full-flavored, but not subtle. Its meaty intensity approached that of a gravy. Yet every ingredient blended harmoniously: the tomatoes, having been cooked now for several hours, had diffused to the point of being almost invisible; the breadcrumb-and-parsley crust, baked on top, was cracked so that the underlying moisture seeped throughout. In Bittman’s cassoulet each ingredient retained its particular flavor, and the result was a taste much fresher. The meats were chunkier and, not having had the time to dissolve into the stew, varied greater in texture. The lightly cooked tomatoes recalled the Mediterranean origins of the dish, and the garnish of parsley on top recalled spring, rather than the winter season for which cassoulet is intended. So was it still a cassoulet?

The table confirmed what I had privately realized in the kitchen: that while my two-day effort was valiant, Child’s recipe had surpassed a diminishing point of returns. With just a little more time spent cooking, Bittman’s recipe could easily take the cake, in terms of taste, texture, time, and cost. Yet the last-minute call to remove the duck from the Bittman version probably influenced our assessment, perhaps unfairly. Had Julia’s cassoulet not seemed so much heavier by comparison, maybe it would have been praised for its depth of flavor. In the other direction, perhaps Bittman’s would have even been improved by the addition of duck, had not the rest of the meal made that ingredient seem so excessive.

At the end of her recipe for cassoulet, Julia Child recommends finishing the meal with “fruit for dessert, followed by a brisk walk.” Don’t let the pithy tone throw you off — after eating a rich stew featuring meat cooked in the fat of other meats, you should probably get up and move before your arteries harden. But I think Julia also had the cook’s sanity in mind. After spending three days planning, purchasing, and preparing cassoulet according to her recipe, I was suffering from meat overexposure and kitchen claustrophobia. I was ready for that walk — just not along the Cassoulet Trail.

Photo by Daniel Adler

In late 2008, Daniel Adler traveled between South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, China, and Vietnam to study the effectiveness of Sister City relationships. As he left America, he was told that "Sister Cities don't do anything," but having traded shots of ginseng liquor with the mayor of Gunsan, South Korea, he believes he has disproved that theory. Images from Daniel’s travels can be viewed at his personal photography website, Adlerography.