Around our house, winter is nesting season, the time to reluctantly close up the grill and bring cooking inside to the stew pot. This is when I dream of cassoulet: the rustic ragout of beans, duck, and sundry pork products that is a culinary hallmark of the Languedoc region of Southern France. Cassoulet may be the ultimate cold weather fare. Indeed, the casserole is stuffed with enough protein calories—animal and otherwise—to tide over even the most ambitious eater until late spring at very least. My daughter calls it “hibernation food,” and a waggish friend calls the dish “All Creatures Great and Small Stew.” Enormously satisfying stuff, but definitely not food for vege-folk.
There are manifold claims regarding the precise birthplace of cassoulet: Toulouse? Castelnaudary? Carcassonne? Similarly, the passionate interregional arguments regarding proper ingredients for the dish rage on: goose? lamb? mutton? pork belly? pork ribs? Should there be a breadcrumb crust, or no? Over the years, my go-to cassoulet recipe has been a Toulousain version from the October 21, 2007 issue of Saveur (also available in a slightly varied form online at saveur.com/article/recipes/cassoulet). It’s a Herculean two-day affair involving chopping, sautéing, puréeing, baking, and constant fussing with the bean-y, pork-y crust that is literally the dish’s crowning glory. The ante is upped precipitously if you’re brave and patient enough to make your own duck confit and/or Toulouse sausage (I’m not).
As much as I love cooking and eating cassoulet, the thing that I love perhaps the most about the whole process is the foraging and shopping that happens well before the cocotte ever hits the oven. In true French style, I make a day of marketing and schmoozing with shop folk. Inevitably, I come home with bulging bags and a heightened appreciation for living in an area that’s rich in culinary resources and equally hooked into the joys of cooking and eating.
Batterie de Cuisine
In cooking cassoulet over the years, I’ve always used a Belgian cocotte in lieu of a proper cassole, which is the tapered earthenware pot specifically intended for making cassoulet and impossible to find for purchase except online. Flame-red and very well loved, my enamelled old friend was most likely bought by my mother-in-law in the homewares basement of the long-gone Hink’s department store in downtown Berkeley sometime in the 1970s.
If you’re going to swelter over a stove for two days straight, might as well treat yourself to a new wooden spoon, no? I love the sensuously grained olivewood tools at The Spanish Table (1814 San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley). While I’m there, I take the opportunity to stock up on urfa, a dark, earthy, and slightly sticky Turkish pepper that I like to use in cassoulet and almost everything else I cook.
Duck Legs (jambes de canard)
After many years of cassoulet-making involving an untold number of jambes de canard, my definite preference is the Sonoma County Poultry Liberty Duck, which I get from The Local Butcher Shop (1600 Shattuck Avenue, Suite 120, in Berkeley). Fresh duck works just swell in the recipe, but The Local Butcher Shop also sells duck leg confit, which makes the dish even more authentic and sublime—well worth the spluge. While you’re there, pick up a bit of duck fat for the dish. You can probably use olive oil instead, but why in the world would you? As an alternative source, the duck and duck fat at Magnani’s Poultry (1576 Hopkins Street in Berkeley) are also très bonnes.
Unsmoked Ham Hocks
The highly smoked pig hocks commonly found in stores don’t work nearly as well in this dish as the fresh variety. The Local Butcher Shop will cut some unsmoked hocks for you on the spot. Also available as a special order from Clove and Hoof (4001 Broadway, Oakland) and Ver Brugge Foods (6321 College Avenue, Oakland).
As if the dish were not sinfully unctuous enough. See unsmoked ham hocks (above) for sources.
An unsmoked garlicky sausage made with lots of red wine, Toulouse sausage is not at all easy to come by. But it’s available occasionally at The Local Butcher Shop, as well as at Clove and Hoof and the Fatted Calf (320 Fell Street, San Francisco). Cafe Rouge meat market (1782 4th Street, Berkeley) sells a garlic sausage that’s a suitable substitute.
Well, yeah, you can buy Schillings at Safeway, but then again, you can also make this dish with Jimmy Dean breakfast sausages. I like Oaktown Spice Shop (546 Grand Avenue, Oakland) for fresh, high quality spices and herbs, and for the wonderful smell of the place and the friendly staff.
Aromatics and Vegetables and Beans (oh my!)
The usual suspects: Monterey Market (1550 Hopkins Street, Berkeley) and Berkeley Bowl West (920 Heinz Avenue, Berkeley), or sundry Berkeley farmers’ markets. The beans are a bit of a contentious issue among cassoulet purists. The Saveur recipe calls for dried great northern beans; others use cannellini or tarbais. In my book (and this may be a huge heresy), considering the amount of fat and other protein roiling around in the pot, it doesn’t really matter all that much as long as the beans are white and firm enough to hold up to long hours of baking.
Cassoulet is so monumentally dense, rich, and filling that I generally forgo sides, except, perhaps, a dish of roasted peppers with pine nuts and a drizzle of good olive oil. A very simple green salad with vinaigrette also works well. Then there’s the issue of bread. With all those beans, do we really need more carbs? Well … yes, please! The cool-looking, rustic pain d’epis from Acme Bread (1601 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley, and most Bay Area grocery stores) is always fun. Lately, however, I’ve become hopelessly hooked on the spectacular baguettes and other offerings at the tiny, adorable Fournée Bakery, across the road from the Claremont Hotel (2912 Domingo Avenue, Berkeley).
Vin (toujours vin!)
Cassoulet is definitely not a meal for a timorous, weak-willed wine—just check out the amount of garlic that goes into the dish! I’m particularly fond of the dark, puissant wines from the region around the city of Cahors in Southwest France, located a few hour’s drive north of the Languedocian cradle of cassoulet. Pick some up from the redoubtable Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant (1605 San Pablo Avenue, Berkeley) after you buy your pain d’epis at Acme Bakery next door. I’ve also found lovely Cahors wines at Vino! (6319 College Avenue, Oakland).
Gary Handman is an occasional freelance illustrator and cartoonist whose work has appeared in a strangely diverse gaggle of books and journals. In a former (pre-retirement) life he daylighted as the film and video librarian of the UC Berkeley library. He has lived in Berkeley with his wife, Pam, for ages. You can reach Gary at handman(at)berkeley.edu.