I cook a cassoulet once each winter. It’s a multi-step, multi-day, labor-intensive effort. My method of creating the hearty French-inspired casserole is distilled from many recipes over many years of trial and error. It may not meet a purist’s criteria for a classical rendition, but it is clean-your-plate delicious and a welcome seasonal tradition in my house.
Besides the taste and the gratification of serving something that consistently earns accolades, what I love most about this meal is that it represents the ultimate luxury. Not in cost or esoteric ingredients—its roots are more peasant than princely— but in the expenditure of time. An economical combination of beans and less-expensive cuts of meat and poultry, it expresses the essence of true home cooking, revealing how simple ingredients can be transformed into something extraordinary, paying homage to frugality, diligence, and skill. Instead of quick and easy, a common kitchen mantra these days, cassoulet requires days, if not weeks, to collect and prepare the components. This dish requires planning, patience, attention, and a willingness to prioritize the work of making food. The experience, like the finished dish, is rich and satisfying.
Four recipes are required to achieve my version of cassoulet. Beans, often the victim of careless handling and overcooking, are treated with great respect. The drippings from roasted meats must be collected and hoarded, the fat treated like a treasure. The sauce is not incidental and should be a star on its own. Assembly and baking is best done a day before serving, as the flavor only improves with an overnight rest in the refrigerator, ensuring that the cook will not be trapped at the stove while guests enjoy each others’ company.
Because it is a major undertaking, making a cassoulet is not worth doing unless I make a large amount, which always prompts a gathering of family or friends around our table. The element of sociability has become an inextricable part of the process, and that’s another reason to love it. I think of my cassoulet as a gift I can give that brings people together. Hot from the oven along with good crusty bread, a green salad, and a full-bodied red wine, and this dish becomes the centerpiece for a celebratory meal that nourishes body and heart. Add candlelight and a dark cold night glows with warmth, good cheer, and hospitality.