My extended French family has a tradition of celebrating three February birthdays on a single occasion.
This year’s celebration began early on a Sunday afternoon with a Champagne aperitif and hors d’oeuvres. During this relaxed time, birthday presents were exchanged and opened and thank-yous delivered, mostly in the form of kisses.
Then the real fun started when we moved to the table for the main meal. We began with two different and traditional salads—a green leafy salad and a grated beet salad served with the same vinaigrette.
Everyone, except me, was able to clean their plates with a small piece of bread. I always try to do the same but inevitably fall short, leaving traces of beet juice and salad dressing behind.
The next course was the truly traditional French cassoulet based on the Toulouse recipe.
This recipe combines duck confit, pork, sausage, haricot beans, herbs, and spices. Ours was topped with bread crumbs, which I understand are an optional addition.
One of the other three best-known versions of cassoulet is Castelnaudary, which includes goose confit, pork shoulder, sausage, garlic, tomatoes, herbs, and spices. The third, Carcassone, includes goose confit, pork, sausage, duck, pork rinds, garlic, and herbs.
The haricot beans (extra-large navy beans) are sometimes cooked in a broth until they have softened before all the ingredients are combined.
Whatever the choice of meat and seasonings, all three recipes are baked slowly in a special cassoulet casserole dish, described as a “deep, round earthenware pot with slanting sides.”
Cassoulet is an interesting dish because although it is considered the pinnacle of southwestern French cooking, its origins are outside of France. For instance, the haricot beans came to France from the Americas following Columbus’s adventures in the New World.
And recipes dating back to the eighth century in Arab cookbooks combine ingredients much like those that currently constitute cassoulet.
I’ve also learned that the “correct” recipe for cassoulet can be the source of heated arguments.
Peter Andros, a blogger who writes the Roaming GastroGnome, has concluded that “cassoulet is one of those dishes which does not have a standard recipe. Or rather it has a standard recipe for whatever area of France you are in, where the recipe [is] passionately defended as the one and only way to cook cassoulet thus making all other cassoulet recipes incorrect and deserving of scorn and ridicule.”
Those heated discussions remind me of all the conversations I’ve had over the years on the correct recipe for chili con carne. Of course, the way I make it is the correct way
I turn down any suggestion to add corn. Moreover, I refuse to cook a white chili or a chicken-based chili. Chili should be red. And I don’t add a quarter cup of cocoa powder to deepen the flavor. As for liquid, I use good-quality beer—not tap water.
Want my recipe? It’s the best!
Remember, in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, two islands war over the proper way to crack an egg. We humans are a provincial lot, aren’t we? We can find the most trivial matters to disagree over.