Bankrupt for Authenticity?

Earlier this week, I had a craving for cassoulet, which here I will derisively call Toulouse-style pork and beans. There’s more to it, of course, much more, literally as much as you want to put into it, and for days. See, http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/toulouse-style-cassoulet And that last part got me thinking…

By the time a cook locates and buys (or makes) the “classic” ingredients, e.g., duck confit, garlicy Toulouse sausage, true Tarbais beans, fatback, fresh hamhocks, pancetta, prosciutto, extra duck fat, not only is this an elaborate multi-day labor, it’s EXPENSIVE. There’s nothing to deride about the results, and comparing cassoulet to franks and beans isn’t really fair. But still, a full-on cassoulet can blow a huge hole in a food budget.

It occurred to me that cassoulet is just one of many such preps where small quantities of multiple, disparate, hard-to-find, pricey ingredients are put together as an “authentic” special delight. Examples include paella, cioppino, and jambalaya. And it occurred to me that, originally, these dishes did not follow some rigidly-conformist, Wolfortian scheme whereby the people who made it starved the rest of the month.

It dawned on me that this type dish is likely a throw-together, a hodgepodge of things the makers already had, or had very easy access to. Armed with this realization, I used the canned Cannelli beans, bacon, pastrami, salt pork, Boston butt, brats (with garlic powder), and bacon grease I already had. I did have one one frozen duck confit leg I’d been hoarding. And while I did cool the first cooking stage of my cassoulet (the “classic” recipes call rhapsodically for overnight or longer), it all was done in one afternoon and served for that day’s dinner. And it was good, every bit as soul-satisfying as when I’d followed Paula Wolfort down the rabbit hole.

As fate would have it, the next day a client took me to a $$$ French restaurant for an unplanned lunch–I couldn’t resist choosing the cassoulet. It may have been better than my impromptu “leftover” version, but not by much. And a close reading of the dinner and lunch menus convinced me that the chef, like the originators of “authentic” cassoulet and me, probably already had the ingredients left over from use in other dishes.

Food for thought.

Aloha,
Kaleo

5 Likes

A couple of years back, we were in the Mercadona supermarket at Calais (we always get to the town early enough to shop before catching the ferry). We’re slowly wandering down one of the aisles, looking for tins of pot jevleesh (or potje vleesh, as it’s known over the border in Dutch speaking Belgium). This bloke says “You want to try that tin of cassoulet. It’s really good”. So, we picked one up with no great expectations of quality. But it turned out to be fine. Not exactly your genuine Toulouse cassoulet but pretty good.

1 Like

Bankrupt for cash AND time for authenticity.

When I first learned cooking from cookbooks, I had little sense what each ingredient added to the overall dish (arguably I still know little, but that’s another story), so I always exactly followed every recipe and ingredient. What happened was I found out I spent a huge amount of time to source these ingredients from multiple stores. And often times I only used a small portion of these ingredients in the dish I was cooking because the packaging came in a size larger than what I needed, which was obviously not a good use of money.

Over time, I just cook the simple stuff at home with the essential ingredients I have. And I go out and eat the stuff I can’t cook and don’t have the ingredients to cook.

3 Likes

Agree with what you say.
Several years ago a friend loaned me a cultural history of France that addressed agriculture and food preparation pre-20th century. Darn, I wish I could provide a title. Because it overturned all my completely ignorant assumptions. The author documented long-term food shortages and reports of chronically poor food preparation in regions outside of Paris. If a french woman of 1820 was cooking to make the most with what was available, avoid waste, stimulate the appetite and maximize calories she might say Right On!

3 Likes

THIS.

When we lived in France, I told a neighbor about Wolfert’s 3-day recipe, and I thought she was going to hurt herself laughing.

She told me exactly this – that cassoulet is poor people food – put on the fire to cook while tending the garden, doing the wash, etc., etc., etc. and made with what was on hand.

I also noted that my friends and other neighbors would use Tarbais beans if they had the extra cash and just happened to have found the bean, but most cassoulet was made with the same white beans that the rest of us use when we blanch at the price of the Tarbais.

I always kept a big glass jar of cassoulet on hand for a quick dinner – the tinned stuff is good, but the stuff in the glass jars is well beyond respectable – some of the small produced are actually really, really good.

2 Likes

How much did you cost you to make it?

As @Sunshine said Cassoulet it used to be a humble dish for the poor, people in that village probably eat Cassoulet every other day. Another dish I think for the poor is Bouillabaisse, because the fishermen has a lot of leftover fish, and they throw everything in a pot and make a soup. I made it once, and it was expensive, all the fish!

It never crossed my mind to make Cassoulet though, I was lucky that once I bought from the food expo the authentic Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, really good. But I live in a duck country, so duck confit and duck fat is easy to find and the toulouse sausage we can buy in supermarket. But well, I will buy the ready made cassoulet either tin or in bocal.

Nowadays, when I choose a recipe that requires specific ingredients, I make sure to find a few recipes that share the same ingredients so I can use up the ingredients in a week or 2. It’s also a nice way to explore the special ingredient.

Haha, I just broke the bank tonight with a paella! Luckily I bought the saffron directly from producer, cheaper and better quality.

2 Likes

this post is inspiring to me. I have been guilty of hunting down one-use ingredients, or a specific brand/type of ingredient instead of using what i have on hand or what i can buy cheaply/easily. Drives the BF crazy. Thanks for this.

I also find that hunting down “exotic” ingredients is part of the adventure. Most of the time, it opens doors for new ideas.

2 Likes

The same is true for cooking equipment. You don’t need multiple incarnations of the heavy-duty braising pot. As long as it’s big, retains even heat, and is covered (lid, sheet pan, platter), it’ll do. And with this big pot, you don’t need a stock pot, pasta pot, or deep fryer, either. Got a colander? You don’t absolutely need a steamer basket, or vice versa. Got a chef’s knife? You don’t need a santoku, or vice versa. The home cooks who popularized the traditional dishes rarely had large batteries of equipment.

2 Likes

or to be more accurate, the female home cooks who invented the traditional dishes. With regard to the Paula Wolfert/Edna Lewis style of anthropological cookbook - I think it’s interesting, even important to KNOW the history of the way a dish has been traditionally made in a particular place at a particular time - without feeling you have to reproduce every aspect of it in a galaxy far, far away. Cholent (another European peasant bean dish) for example was made the way it was (assembled at individual homes, carried to the village baker and all the pots cooked in the communal oven) to follow kosher practice and to not waste fuel in the village baker’s oven. Nobody makes it that way today, not even the most observant of Orthodox Jews.

OF course I agree with kaleo’ s basic point, but then this is something I have known for a very long time. It can be fun to explore different ingredients from different parts of the world, but there’s no point in getting too fist in the air about it. Culinary cultural drift is not a new thing. Otherwise they wouldn’t be cooking with potatoes in Europe and chiles in Asia. And we wouldn’t be eating beef or chicken in the Americas.

1 Like

I agree to certain extent but I think there is still an argument that classic dishes need to still have strong links to the original.

Cassoulet is a great example, it needs to be a mix of different meats slow cooked with beans. It should have some poultry, some meat, and some robust sausage and of course beans. But chicken legs substitute well for duck (and confit is good but not essential), any meaty garlicky sausage works, lamb shanks work we’ll etc etc.

But how far can you go away the recipe before lot loses meaning - no poultry? or no sausage? can it be cooked in an hour?

I tend to think if yo don’t substitute sensibly the dish you make maybe good but should no longer be called the same as the original.

Certainly many historic dishes come from times where the ingredients were cheap and available in the area and as times have changed these have become more expensive but I strongly believe its important to keep the ethos of those original dishes.

My regular examples would be using beef for traditional lamb curries as stewing beef is so much cheaper than lamb (and obviously lamb, or mutton, was used in India because of the religious taboos against beef). Lamb shoulder for dishes that use lamb shanks (tajines etc) as they are now fashionable and cost more than “fatty” shoulders. And smoked bacon rashes instead of pancetta for carbonara.

2 Likes

Years ago I decided to make this dish for family members who were coming for a multi night visit. We had some activities planned that having a good do ahead dish sounded like a good idea and I had been eyeing the recipe in FineCooking for a few years. These family members enjoy good food and also enjoy visiting France so this seemed like a good time to try it out.

I made my own confit and hunted down all the traditional ingredients. This was not easy where I live. Some of it like duck fat and the beans had to be mail ordered. It was at least a three day project. I proudly placed it on the table and served it. The thought I had when I tasted it was, “that was a lot of work for a pot of beans.” I do not know what I was expecting for that is what it is. My company did not say much about it that night be we have discussed it since. They do not much like cassoulet and consider it a pretty over rated pot of beans. Not a bad pot of beans, just not all that interesting, at least to us. I think the bean it what annoyed me the most. I intended to order some when I went to France to compare with mine but did not have a chance. I was there in Spring so that could be why I did not notice it on menus. I am pretty sure what I made was just fine, I am a good enough cook to not have done something terribly wrong.

Live and learn. I did enjoy the duck confit and make it often. I feel it is a bit of waste to put it in a pot of beans IMHO.

This begs the question: What was the “original”? What we are now told–by the Academie du Cassoulet–isn’t much. http://www.academie-du-cassoulet.com/le-cassoulet/ It’s beans, some confit meat (need not be poultry) and fresh coarse pork sausage. They say there are 3 main variants (literally the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!), corresponding to Castelnaudary, Carcassone and Toulouse. The first apparently includes vertebral bones, the second game, and the third mutton.

According to their charter (apologies or Google Translate):

“The bean used will preferably be of the Lauragais, Mazères, or
Equivalent, dry bean, excluding any cooked preserves. Local
Certain terroirs do not exclude the use of other varieties of regional beans.
The main preserved meat is goose, duck and / or pork (shoulder, hock, spine).
The use of preserves for these candied meat is not permitted.
The pure pork sausage (casing and flesh) will concern a sausage sausage type of Toulouse,
Chopped artisanally and fresh (natural casing, large chopping …). Bone will also be used
Of ham and garlic hash The objective being as for all products, to privilege
Supplies made from regional raw materials.
Other complementary ingredients, (pure pork rind sausage,
Sheep …) can be used according to local usages, but with the same objectives
Original and quality than the main ingredients.”

To me, these variants sound a lot like what we hear (and argue about) when talking about “authentic” Chicago pizza, Philly cheesesteaks, NOLA muffalettas, etc., etc. With those preps it’s clear there is no “original”–what’s considered authentic in one neighborhood is an impostor in the next.

I have concluded that cassoulet is quite an elastic concept, and probably has as much to do with a general cooking method as it does strictly defined ingredients.

Aloha,
Kaleo

Or in American terms, Casserole University.
Every Midwesterner holds a degree from there. :slight_smile:

3 Likes

The Academie’s website is hilarious. Scarlet robes, hats (look like Cassoules), honorary Cassoule necklaces, etc.

Nothing like this in the Midwest, I hope. :wink:

Aloha,
Kaleo

1 Like

The first few times when I tried Cassoulet, I don’t particular like it (too fat when the dish cools down, need to eat it while it is still hot), just like choucroute from Alsace (too acid). It took me some time to get to really like the taste. My husband is French, he like neither of the 2 dishes.

1 Like

One can never be 100% sure what those Minnesotan folks do when they’re in their ice fishing shacks.
I wouldn’t put ceremonial robes while they serve hot dish past them. :slight_smile:

2 Likes

In my mind “original” includes all the traditional regional variations and establishes some fairly broad boundaries. Some dishes are going to be quite narrowly defined like a Tarte Tatin whilst others like pizza are going to be broad.

But even with the broad definition I think that we would all agree that pitta bread spread with cheese whizz and tomato ketchup, then grilled…is not a pizza…!

Not certain I agree Cassoulet can be defined simply by the cooking method and not the distinct combination of beans and various meats, confits and sausages…after all lots of regions have very different slow cooked dishes that evolved from the necessity of using the community bread oven after the bread was baked and many of these are equally distinctive.

1 Like

It tends to be more of a home cooked dish and as others have said many in France buy it in tins/jars - which are generally very good. The dish seems to respond very well to the preservation process.

You do see it quite a lot around Carcasonne and surrounding towns with lots of restaurants “specialising” in it for the tourist market - I was a there in August and couldn’t understand the desire to eat such a hearty dish in such hot weather.

I am sure your version was good - to me its the combination of meats, sausage etc rather than just confit and beans.

1 Like

I had assumed it was a Fall dish. I would not want to eat it in hot weather either, it seems to hearty.

“Food is a pretty good prism through which to view humanity.”

― Jonathan Gold