If you've ever tasted classic French cassoulet, you know the glory that can be achieved through baking beans with meat. And if you've ever wondered how to make cassoulet, the recipe is not for the faint of heart. Today, though, I made Julia Child's cassoulet and lived to tell the tale.
Before we were married, my husband and I took a few trips. One of them was to Paris, where we drank house wine, broke the tops off of chewy baguettes, and lit candles in Notre Dame. I am so nostalgic over the days of travel, and not only because of the pandemic. We have three small children and this type of trip is the stuff of fantasy these days.
One afternoon we had lunch in a small bistro where we sat outside with a view of the Eiffel Tower and I ordered cassoulet. Naturally, when the food came I stuck my fork into my husband’s dish and he did the same to mine. He fell hard that day.
At the heart of cassoulet is the most humble of ingredients: dry beans. However, the French elevate them beyond recognition by cooking them slowly several times with various meats and herbs and alcohol and the resulting concoction is admittedly magical.
I promised my husband when we got married that I would make it for him someday. He bought me Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but once I saw that the recipe spanned six pages, contained thirty ingredients including mutton bones and goose fat, and involved a meat grinder and at least two days to complete, my enthusiasm waned a bit and I figured it would be easier to just go back to Paris.
But this year I held myself accountable by putting this task on my 20 for 2020 list. It might be under the wire here, but I’m getting it in, dammit! I met Julia’s demands as much as possible at the grocery store, but had to substitute lamb for mutton, couldn’t locate a pork rind or unsalted, unsmoked lean bacon (isn’t all bacon smoked?), didn’t even try to find goose fat because the amount of animal fat in this recipe is enough already to kill someone without the assistance of Covid, and opted to purchase already-made sausage as opposed to procuring a meat grinder and toiling away on my own as the dear lady suggests. Oh Julia.
As a prelude to the recipe, she includes a blurb with this lovely heading: “A Note on the Order of Battle.” And yup, I definitely felt like I should’ve been swiping on war paint while reading through the procedure.
It began last night with a marinade for the pork loin which then went into the oven at 7:30 this morning to roast with carrots, onions, and herbs. Two hours later, the pork comes out and hangs in the fridge until much later and the soft, roasted vegetables get mashed into a gorgeous sauce to be reserved for later.
While the pork was roasting, I boiled and soaked two pounds of Great Northern beans for an hour, then cooked them a few more hours with salt pork, garlic, and herbs. The salt pork comes out and the beans sit in their warm yummy bath until they’re needed. They already taste delicious.
Next comes the lamb. It is seared, then braised for several hours in the oven with onions, tomato paste, dry vermouth, beef broth, garlic, and herbs. When that came out, I drained the beans and put them into the lamb sauce to absorb all of that flavor, along with the drippings and vegetables from the roasted pork. Meanwhile, I browned and sliced the sausage.
We’re almost there. The final step is to assemble the casserole. I layered the beans with the sliced pork loin, salt pork, lamb, and sausage, then poured the glorious sauce over everything, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and parsley, and baked for another hour until it formed a golden crust.
This brings us to 6pm. I’m about ready to drop after participating in a cooking marathon that rivals Thanksgiving dinner, overseeing virtual learning all morning, and complying with a request from all three kids to make slime in the afternoon. The house is a mess, the kitchen floor is full of muddy pawprints, and the littlest is running around in his underwear, but dinner is done and my hardworkin’ man is happy.
I learned a few things today. I don’t think I’ll ever make this again for a couple reasons. One is obvious: it’s easier to fly back to Paris. But also, as I was eating it I realized that, while delicious, a comparable version of it can be achieved with much less toil and cholesterol. I understand now how to flavor beans in layers, and while it still takes time, one type of meat would almost certainly suffice. It doesn’t need the half a barnyard for which it calls. More vegetables would provide some balance, as well.
And so Julia, thank you for teaching me the method. But I believe that after the first go, a cook should make it her own. The recipe is too long to reproduce here, but if you are feeling adventurous please email me and I’d be happy to share. Bon appétit.
To be a good cook, you have to have a love of the good, a love of hard work, and a love of creating."
- Julia Child