The joy that is Cassoulet

Everyone has their favorite holiday food tradition; roast goose, home-made caramels, fruitcake, prime rib… Mine is cassoulet. For me, it started almost a dozen years ago with a kit sold by D’Artagnan. It was ironic though. I spent what I thought was an exorbitant amount of money for a one-pot meal that would serve six to eight people. And then I promptly caught the flu, gave away my endeavors, and never even tasted it. In the following years, I jumped from recipe to recipe – Julia Child’s, Saveur’s, old copies of Gourmet Magazine’s… Then one year I stumbled on Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France. and her recipe "Cassoulet in the Style of Toulouse." 

That was my recipe of choice for several years. The ritual was to
prepare the cassoulet and have an open house to which friends could
visit during their last day of shopping before Christmas. They would
stop in for a bowl of cassoulet, a glass of wine, and a sweet bite of
some sort. As my love of all things culinary was developing, I was
becoming obsessive for all things authentic and in January, 1998, Saveur magazine ran an article about the cassole,
the clay pot in which the unctuous bean and pork fat-laden stew is
made. I had friends traveling to France that summer. "Could you try and
get me one of these pots?" I asked. No luck. Inquiries were made as I
was surprised to learn that no one was importing them; no Sur La Table,
no William-Sonoma cassoles were available. Years would go by when
perchance I stumbled on  eGullet,
a food-based chat group. I could go to a large community of like-minded
food freaks to help me in my search and in September of ’03 started a
thread which is still in their archives.

What came from that original inquiry was a most remarkable offer — if I could not acquire my own cassole, Paula W.
would lend me hers. I was astonished. Who was this "Paula W." and why
would she lend me something I apparently could not replace? I asked and
the response was simply that she had been reading and appreciating my
writings on eG and felt I had enough integrity to treat her pot with
care. That particular response was signed P. Wolfert. Obviously
astonished, I put two-and-two together; THE Paula Wolfert? The author
of the cookbooks I had been cherishing all those years? Yes, THE Paula
Wolfert. That was four years ago and in those four years, I have a
mentor, a friend, and an adopted mother as I lost mine shortly after
meeting Ms. Wolfert. My life has been enriched in more ways that I can
describe but somehow it seems that much more poignant during the time
of year when I make my holiday cassoulet. And now it is made in my own
cassole, not a French version but one produced by Clay Coyote Pottery from Minnesota (at the behest of our divine Ms. W). She has since revised the original tome, clarifying my beloved Toulousian recipe and adding several others, including a Catalan version.

This year’s gathering included smoked salmon, shrimp cocktail, a
sumptuous cheese platter with cornichons, olives, dates and membrillo,
charcouterie from Boccalone, cookies, crème brulée, and multiple bottles of vintage Champagne and special wines from the cellar. Akin to Grandmother’s Thanksgiving feast when the turkey comes out of the oven and the family oooh and aahh that never before has such a grand feast been beheld, this year’s cassoulet lives in my memory as the best I’ve ever made. At least, that is the assumption I must make for having invited a dozen guests to share the bounty, I only had a bite or two during the actual celebration (the dirge of the hostess, you know!) and there were no left-overs to be had the morning after…

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2 Responses to “The joy that is Cassoulet”

  1. Diane Says:

    I found a “cassoulet pot” on Ebay but it was really small. The seller has larger ones at his website, I’ll be having a cassoulet cook-off with my daughter, who works at D’Artagnan, using the D’Artagnan kit. I’m making mine in a crockpot the way I made chulent years ago. The first time I tasted cassoulet I thought it WAS chulent. Chulent is a similar dish made for the Jewish Sabbath. My mother-in-law remembers taking her mother’s chulent pot to the neighborhood bakery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, to cook overnight in the ovens. They covered the pot with wax paper and it developed a nice crust on the top, which the kids fought over. My crockpot chulent came out the same way. My mother-in-law is convinced the French stole the recipe for cassoulet from the Jewish chulent. Who knows….but they are very similar dishes.

  2. Kate Hill Says:

    The food world is a generous one indeed! Love your story about ‘borrowing’ Paula W’s cassole. I’ve been blogging Cassoulet all winter; it must be in the air. btw, I will be exporting French cassoles soon, so will keep you posted.
    Happy New Year from SW France!

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