Chilly winter evenings call for satisfying meals, preferably not hard to make, that fill you up and taste particularly good. It’s the dinner equivalent of relaxing before a roaring wood fire. But you don’t want to slave away in the kitchen, nor do you want to sacrifice hearty flavors for convenience.Put together, it is a recipe for a southwestern French specialty, from Toulouse or Castelnaudry (which lies between Toulouse and Carcassonne), called Cassoulet.
Basically, Cassoulet (from “Cassole,” or casserole dish), is a long simmered bean dish, perfect for your slow cooker. One pound of Great Northern Beans should be soaked overnight, then drained and rinsed in cold water. Add the meats you have saved for the occasion. This is the real secret of Cassoulet. If you have had duck or goose over the holidays, and still have some left over, this is the time to add them to the Cassoulet. If not, savory pork sausage will make a fine dish. Just cover with fresh cold water.
Spices are important. I use two bay leaves, some black pepper, parsley, thyme, and a few crushed garlic cloves. I sometimes also add a tablespoon or two of dark maple syrup for extra flavor. The general rule is, the heartier the meat, the more succulent the dish. With goose, you have a company dinner! Then, 4 or 6 hours of slow cooking as the flavors simmer together. As the master chef, you will want to separate and remove the bones before serving. Serve with a salad and fresh French bread.
Your wine should be preferably a regional wine, flavorful and unpretentious. The traditional wine is a Cahors, for example a Cèdre “Heritage” Cahors 2009 ($12). My favorite is a Château Chambert, a superb Malbec that has been made since 1690, and is now produced organically. If your retailer does not have it, it is worthwhile seeing if he can order it for you. It should cost about $18 per bottle for the excellent 2009.
For centuries Cahors was known as the “black wine,” rich and hearty, and since it traveled well, it was shipped throughout Europe. The grape variety was called Auxerrois. However, when the grape caught on in Argentina under the name Malbec, increasingly Malbec became the name used even in Cahors, the region of southwestern France where it originated.
You can use other wines for this easy French recipe. I have served Cassoulet with a well aged Châteauneuf du Pape, and they went together quite well, the full bodied flavors of the wine complementing the rich Cassoulet. But I don’t think you should get a grand cru from your cellar for a Cassoulet dinner. Not when a fine regional wine would serve just as well, and better from the standpoint of authenticity.
By the way, it’s best to avoid controversy if you are traveling in the region where Cassoulet is made. The towns are quite proud of their “original” Cassoulet. Castelnaudary has its official town website devoted to the dish, as befits “the world capital of Cassoulet.” They celebrate the dish with annual festivals, and in August, 2012, welcomed 50,000 visitors!
That would be great fun to attend, but I must insist – a hearty Cassoulet is best enjoyed in winter weather!
William S. Shepard, Wine Editor
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