I wish I were in southwestern France, hanging out in a hillside village where I could enjoy cassoulet. On a damp and chilly winter evening, what could be more comforting than beans with duck confit, cubes of succulent lamb shoulder and, of course, Toulousain sausage? Enjoy this dish with a healthy degree of respect for the labors of love and time needed to bring these individual ingredients together in a way that celebrates all of the flavor and texture of the season.
Defining the process and the ingredients within this classic French dish is difficult. From town to town throughout southwestern France, self-appointed experts will insist that their methods are the right and only ones. They’ll tell you a specific sausage that is unique to their location is a must. Others will insist that you have to use mutton, and not lamb. And someone from the neighboring town will remind you that you cannot use pork.
But I am not hanging out in cassoulet country. I’m in Ohio. I won’t listen to the French melodrama about authenticity, although it would be entertaining to watch the Gaelic gesticulations, with their shoulders rising up and down, and the dramatic facial expressions.
Fortunately, we can produce a great cassoulet in Ohio. In fact, for years I have wondered why common peasant dishes like cassoulet have not played a more important role in our food and farming community. When we talk about local, or as the French say, terroir, cassoulet fits well into our culinary lexicon. Our farmers produce excellent duck, pork, and lamb. We also have the right kinds of terrain, soil, grains, and open space. We have all of the ingredients to build a great cassoulet right here, just miles from our dinner table.
We are also getting better production quality as some of our farmers move away from the industrial model to artisan production. We again have access to several heritage breeds of hogs, such as Red Wattle, Large Black, Hereford, Tamworth, and the more and more popular Berkshire. Each of these breeds has distinguishing qualities relating to the fat cover, the size of the loin, the fullness of the shoulder and the hind quarters.
Artisan farmers in Ohio are also producing excellent lamb for the commercial market, and more of it is moving directly from the farm to the consumer.
However, the most critical ingredient in cassoulet is the beans, and until recently there were limitations in finding good, naturally dried beans close to home. Fortunately, those limitations are disappearing. Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens is producing excellent, naturally dried beans. Closer to home in Middlefield, farmer Harvey Kempf has taken on the challenge of artisan bean production. He grows the beans and allows them to dry naturally in their pods. Then he gathers the vines into shocks, and threshes them in his self-designed machine.
Beans from the Kempf farm soften quickly, so they can be cooked in just a couple of hours. And most importantly for our purposes, they hold up during the long cooking process needed to create cassoulet.
With superior ingredients, an Ohio-sourced cassoulet is sure to be a success. All you need is to devote the time and attention that this cooking process demands and deserves. So much of what gives cassoulet its decadent reputation results from the days of slow cooking that are required to develop the dish’s depth of flavor. The rewards are worth the investment when you bring friends and family together to enjoy the celebration at the dinner table, Ohio style.