Roommates make everything better when you make impossible to make things together; a story about the ultimate French casserole
A Sunday dinner party, suggested my roommate, who knew exactly how to get my attention. This is an old story, retold now to inspire and to celebrate people you live with; people you’ve spent a lot of time with lately.
A French family, Sunday dinner, my roommate said. Cassoulet.
No way, I responded, knowing exactly who would be chained to the kitchen.
I just want you to help me, she insisted, and I need your pots.
Of course she did. This is how and why we started living together — her wine + my pots + our shared interest in things culinary including white bean and meat casserole/stew.
Okay, I said. I’ll do it. Invite the neighbors (I told you this was an old story). Let’s make cassoulet.
It’s important to mention, for those of you unfamiliar with the stratum of beans and various meats that make this rich, hearty stew, cassoulet is not for the faint of heart or energy.
Cassoulet, a classic specialty of southwestern France, is the epitome of labor-intensivity. Duck confit, sausage, these ingredients are no le steak. Citing sanity and space constraints, I was able to talk my roommate out of making our own sausage. But she wouldn’t budge on the confit.
When I returned home from work that Friday, the kitchen was, um, duck-y and warm. My roommate had already marinated the legs and was into the stage where they bake in a low oven for 10–12 hours.
That’s right, 10–12 hours before constructing the cassoulet and after marinating for the entire day. That’s what cassoulet is all about: precooking everything then baking in layers.
With the hindsight of project completion, I can say the duck confit should have been made a previous weekend. In Pandemic times I’ll say, start your weekend early.
Confit will survive for about a month in the fridge if you have a large enough padlock (see photo, left, for other duck confit options). And the fat rendered lasts until you move out of the house. If you attempt homemade cassoulet with homemade duck confit, heed this you-need-extra-time advice. Your roommate and sanity with thank you.
Do you know about the big three cassoulet styles? 1. The Toulousain (Cassoulet de Toulouse) calls for duck or goose. 2. The version from Carcassonne (Cassoulet de Carcassonne) calls for leg of mutton (toddler-aged lamb) and possibly partridge. 3. Cassoulet de Castelnaudry — generally recognized as the birthplace of the dish — contains pork, pork rind, sausage and, occasionally, goose in place of duck.
In France, as long as a 30/70 ratio of meat-to-everything else is maintained, les citoyens are content.
The Cassoulet de Our Apartment was planned to be a hybrid, consisting of mutton, duck confit, sausage, duck fat, garlic, spices, tomatoes, carrots and, of course, white beans.
If you can find white haricot or flageolet beans, the tiny cream-colored diamonds of the bean world, use them. Otherwise, navy beans or white kidney beans are good substitutes. Do not use round beans, and do not second guess yourself if you cannot find the oval flageolets and send your roommate out to three different markets to double check the shelves. Just make your decision and accept it because we’re talking dry here. The beans need a seriously long soak in water before they are cooked. And Sunday is sooner than you think.
Easier to obtain (which seems impossible) is Toulouse sausage. They are small and garlicky, made from coarsely diced pork and garlic flavored with wine and spices.
So you’ve hit a every single market in your range, and a couple out of range, and have all 20+ ingredients you need. Probably you don’t have an actual cassole, the earthenware vessel in which a proper cassoulet is prepared. Get it? Cassolet? It’s from the Occitan language (Occitan < Occitanie < Aquitaine).
Back to the earthenware vessel. Sloping sides is the thing, so more beans are exposed to heat and a crust forms. But don’t despair. Cast-iron enameled pots with lids work well enough. We used four small ones (see why-roommate-was-into-me, above; I have pots).
Please note your kitchen must remain out-of-bounds for anyone not directly involved in the cassoulet process. Even a bowl of cereal could upset the balance. Are you kidding?! Keep out! The fridge will be full of duck and fat. The counter space will be dedicated to soaking beans. The stove will be loaded with various meats. The linoleum will be slippery from the small accidental spill when someone forgot to grab a pot-holder. I have no idea who that was.
Sunday morning, day three, my roommate was a mess. Sleep-deprivation is one ingredient you want to omit when making cassoulet. Patience is one to add. By noon it was clear our dinner, originally scheduled as an early evening fête, was going to be a little delayed.
The apartment was full of an aroma so delicious the neighbors were lining up like dogs waiting for scraps. Con Edison stopped by to thank us for the non-stop use of our gas stove.
By late afternoon it was clear Sunday dinner was going to be on Monday.
My roommate’s breakdown was quelled by a glass or two of wine (see why-I-was-into-roommate, above; she has wine) and a sliver of duck confit (holy delicious; she was right about making it). We discussed the need to wash all our clothing and towels and furniture to escape the smell. I mean, perfume. I felt like I was swimming in the container with the duck fat. Also like I was inside the oven.
Later Sunday night my roommate and I enjoyed a steaming dish of cassoulet. We were in awe. Of ourselves.
After some seven hours in the low low oven, it was incredible: rich, full of flavor, complex, meaty, creamy, duck crispy, sausage spicy, beans tender, satisfying, outrageous. We’d outdone ourselves. And, in a way, we hardly did anything but wait.
I had to admit, it was worth all her effort. She credited my pots and sous cheffery. We smiled a lot. Did I mention the wine? Cassoulet definitely does not need sides but we decided we’d serve it with green salad. Then we went directly to bed.
Our belated fête was a success. And when our guests, in appreciation, asked what our next Sunday dinner would be, we said: Why don’t you host instead.
Kidding. Cassoulet is something you should try to make, and even repeat, but give yourself a break. And do not forgo the wine.
Recipe, you ask?
Search Gourmet magazine (or the cookbooks); pre-2000 versions of The Joy of Cooking; Paula Wolfert; Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; and/or The New York Times. Find the meat combinations you like. D’Artagnan is a great ingredients source and they make it easy(ish) with a Cassoulet Recipe Kit.
Go for it. Send pics. Not kidding. Wouldn’t this wonderful story be wonderfuller with actual cassoulet photos? Maybe I’ll have to take my own advice.