The deceptively humble French dish is a canvas ripe for variation and personal touches.
Cassoulet may seem simple — meats and beans slow-cooked to stew-like perfection — but if anyone thinks the classic French dish cut and dry, written in stone, my recent experience eating more cassoulet variations than you can shake a wooden spoon at begs to differ. For five years, humanely-raised meat and poultry provider D’Artagnan has sponsored a Cassoulet War in New York City.
The annual event brings in dozens of chefs from around the world, all competing to win over the judges and the public with both traditional and nontraditional incarnations (I heard reports of a Caribbean interpretation with tostones and a "Cassoulet Wellington") of cassoulet. This year, a few local competitors also hosted a Cassoulet Crawl a few days after the main event. Hopping in a bus, I along with fellow journalists, and D'Artagnan founder and CEO Ariane Daguin hopped from bistro to bistro tasting cassoulet from both the resident chef and a visiting chef in town for the competition. In all, I tried ten versions of the beans and meat dish, which, if it sounds heavy, it is. But so, so worth it.
Sure, you can be told cassoulet varies by region and, honestly, the kitchen its prepared in. Most folks who grew up eating the dish will, naturally, prefer a version that resembles the version they got at home. From dry to saucy, rich and beefy to bright and vinegary, cassoulet can be as completely individualist as it is iconic. And as infrequently as I’ve eaten cassoulet, it was only in spending an evening trying ten variations of (mostly) “traditional” takes that I was able to hone in on exactly what I, personally, enjoy about preparations of the dish.
Bold choices, like which meats are involved — traditionally pork (belly and sausage) and duck or goose confit, but broadening to mutton, beef, and even chorizo — and whether or not use a tomato base, can color the end result greatly. Some stir the dish constantly to maintain even consistency, others opt for a top that’s been broiled to a savory crackling shell. Perhaps most impactful is the choice of beans. White beans, specifically tarbais, are traditionally chosen because, when cooked down, they provide a contrast of some whole, some burst legumes, the latter releasing starches that help thicken the consistency of the dish. If smaller or tougher-husked beans are chosen, the cassoulet is a toothier, drier affair. If soft-skinned beans are the go-to, it enters stew, if not soup territory. And how do you soak those beans before they get plopped in the pot? Water? Brine? Vinegar? Are they cooked with aromatics beforehand or married immediately to the meat? Every option is fair game.
Suckling pig, pig feet, ear, and ribs, all found their way into the cassoulet I tried, along with chorizo, chuck flap, bacon, and spices like nutmeg, along with the standard ingredients. Chef Erwan Caradec visiting from La Maison de la Poutine in Paris deconstructed his cassoulet into a bean puree topped with a Toulouse sausage corndog, and a “nugget” of duck confit, pork, and lamb, served directly after Bistro Pierre Lapin executive chef Harold Moore’s by-the-book offering, it was a perfect case study in dissecting cassoulet down to the sum of its parts.
As the night progressed, Champagne, Armagnac, and fat-cutting red wines flowed, and Daguin led singalongs of French tunes like “Les Champs-Élysées.” (I’m unsure how often the opportunity to tour New York’s French restaurants with Daguin arises, but if you have it, take it.) Along the way we sighted Thomas Keller dropping in on one stop, 2019 Cassoulet War judge Christian Constant serving his own rendition, and actor John Lithgow who was honored by the Grande Confrérie du Cassoulet de Castelnaudary for his commitment to celebrating and proselytizing the dish.
The final stop, at Bar Boulud, offered a chance to try the 2019 Cassoulet War winner for Best Traditional Cassoulet from chefs Dieter Samijn and Arthur Dehaine. Even at the point of being stuffed with nine previous helpings (small though they were), Bar Boulud’s cassoulet was worth every bite. Personally, I found I liked the saucier cassoulets more, and especially those with a crusty top layer. At Benoit, guest chef Jean-Pierre Xiradakis of La Tupina served his cassoulet with a vinegar sauce, which cut through the fatty mouthfeel as much or as little as you preferred. Added spice from chorizo and garlic sausages also assuaged my inclination toward Mediterranean flavors. Put those elements together, and I may have found my platonically ideal cassoulet.
The date for next year’s Cassoulet War (and subsequent Crawl), which is open to the public, hasn’t been set just yet but it typically takes place in January or February so be on the lookout (and follow the D’Artagnan blog) for your own opportunity to experience wide variations on the singular cassoulet.