Cassoulet - French White Bean Stew
Created | Updated Aug 31, 2007
Cassoulet can be fairly described as the 'typical' local dish of south-west France, but today it can be found in tins on the shelves of supermarkets all over France. The main ingredients are about two thirds white beans1 and one third meat, often of several different kinds.
The basic combination of meats are pork and sausage, but lamb or even chicken can be added for variety. Indeed the variation in meat content may be as regional as the original recipe was, as in the south-west local preserved duck or goose - confit2 - are very much 'de rigueur'.
The name 'cassoulet' is derived from the cooking pot in which the dish is prepared, the 'cassole d'Issel'. While some may say that it was based on an earlier Arab dish, French cassoulet is generally considered to have originated in Castelnaudary during The Hundred Years War (14th-15th Century).
Whilst the basic preparation leaves a great deal of room for variation, there exist three well-established varieties in particular, each associated with a specific town in south-west France:
Cassoulet de Castelnaudary - the basic 'beans with pork' dish.
Cassoulet de Carcassonne - the same but with lamb (as well as the pork), sausage and partridge (when in season).
Cassoulet de Toulouse - a richer dish, like the Carcassonne variety, but also including some duck or goose (south-west France's regional specialty).
Home-cooked cassoulet may include almost any variation of meat and vegetables to go with the beans, but the sauce will usually include some chopped tomatoes, the inevitable garlic and onions, and various seasonings plus optional extras, such as chopped carrots.
There are so many regional and personal variations that a basic search of the Internet will deliver dozens of distinct alternatives from the basic dish.
The simplest overview of preparation is:
The beans (after overnight soaking) should be brought to the boil on a stove, while the meat is cooked separately.
The various pieces of meat are then placed in a large cooking pot (preferably earthenware) in between two layers of beans, so that the meat does not touch the base of the pan, but is completely covered.
This mix, which should contain enough liquid to completely immerse all the beans, is then covered and left to simmer for three hours.
Finally, the pot is uncovered and cooked in an oven to produce a 'gratiné3'-type crust. Breadcrumbs can be added to aid in formation of the crust.
Generally considered a rich dish, with its thick bean sauce and (often rather fatty) stewed meat, cassoulet makes an ideal 'winter warmer'. One bowl can provide a complete, filling meal, perhaps with a side salad to lighten things up a tad.