In the dead of winter, all northern peoples from the Arctic to the Mediterranean turn to comfort foods to sustain us through the cold, short days until spring. Comfort foods are usually those hearty, savoury, slow-cooked dishes that warm the heart as well as the body, filling the house with delicious odours for hours before it’s actually time to sit down and eat. Every culinary tradition has its comfort food recipes, and most often they are long-cooked dishes using the local ingredients that are available over the winter. Root vegetables, potatoes, onions, beans, pastas, and the most readily available meats, either fresh or preserved, are featured in most comfort foods, no matter what part of the world they come from.
The ultimate comfort food in my opinion (and, believe me, I’ve researched this subject extensively over the past four or five decades!) is not from a wintry nation, but from the relatively moderate region of Languedoc in the south of France: cassoulet.
Cassoulet is a savoury stew of beans and meats and fat that almost certainly developed during one of the many sieges that were inflicted on the towns of the region during the violent upheavals of the Middle Ages. The townsfolk, cut off from supplies, resorted to a communal dish made up of all the things that were left over when fresh food had run out: dried beans, duck confit (duck preserved in its own fat), smoked or dried pork, and lots of garlic. While its true origins are lost in the fog of time, there are three towns that claim to have originated cassoulet and each adds a variation to the dish: Toulouse’s cooks often add tomatoes, Carcassone’s add lamb. However, most historians say that the village of Castelnaudary is the most likely source of the dish, and that town has embraced the culture of cassoulet (the new water tower that dominates the town from its highest point is shaped and coloured like a cassoulet dish complete with gravy dripping over the side!)
After repeated visits to Castelnaudary, I have assembled a recipe that retains the authenticity of the dish, while compromising among the many variations, even among the many recipes from Castelnaudary itself, to create a comfort feast.
By the way, “authenticity” is relative. According to the “Cassoulet Society of Castelnaudary,” to produce a truly authentic cassoulet, you must use water from the wells of Castelnaudary, a cassolo (clay casserole dish) made in the nearby village of Issen, beans from the Lauragais region, and you must cook the dish in the communal bread oven of Castelnaudary, using wood from the slopes of Montagne Noir!
1 kg of lingot or Great Northern beans
700 g pork shoulder cut into chunks
500 g pork rind cut into strips
250 g slab bacon, finely chopped
2 Toulouse sausages (any pork/garlic sausage will do)
6 drumsticks and thighs of duck confit (make your own or buy at specialty butcher)
4 slices of prosciutto cut into thin strips
6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bottle of dark beer
Soak the beans overnight, drain and rinse, then cover with water (or duck broth if available) and add strips of pork rind, chopped bacon, prosciutto, and garlic. Simmer for two hours. Meanwhile, fry the pieces of confit in their fat, and brown the pork shoulder chunks in the same fat. When the beans are done, remove the pork rind and use it to line a very large casserole. Layer the bean mixture and the meats, along with the duck fat, in the casserole. Use one cup of the beer (drink the rest) to braise the sausages, and add them along with the cooking juices to the casserole. Bake at 300 degrees for 2 to 3 hours, allowing a crust to form and stirring it back in twice. If the cassoulet begins to dry out, add a little more duck fat to moisten. Allow a third crust to form, and serve hot. Makes a very filling meal for 8 to 10.