Cassoulet: The Quilt of Cooking
By Jessica Luhning | Photos By Jim Klousia and Eric C. Snowdeal III 0
A couple of years ago I became obsessed with a classic, hearty, French bean stew. It wasn’t that I just wanted to eat it; I wanted to drink up every little thing about it—the history, tradition and folklore; the regional variations and provincial rivalries; the simplicity of its ingredients yet incredible depth of flavor. Is it wrong to muse about a stew?
This isn’t any ordinary bean stew, however. The depth and complexity of the savory flavors are slowly teased out of the tastiest (not the most expensive) bits of duck, pig, lamb and chicken paired with the freshest of garden herbs, sweet white onions, garlic, white haricot beans and the slightest hint of ripe tomato. The original recipe dates back to peasant farmers of 14th century southwestern France, specifically the Languedoc region and the cities of Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Toulouse—all of which maintain a centuries-old rivalry over the true origin and most authentic version of cassoulet (kah-suh-LAY).
Nineteenth-century Paris-born poet and novelist, Anatole France, once described cassoulet as having “a taste, which one finds in the paintings of old Venetian masters, in the amber flesh tints of their women.” It seems I may not be the only one to muse about this stew.
Taking no less than three days to prepare, cassoulet is the epitome of slow food. My friend Monique, from the rugged French region of Brittany, calls it the “quilt of cooking”: each ingredient is prepared in advance, and then layered into a traditional earthenware pot for a four-hour simmer. It is a dish that requires a plan of execution and is meant to be savored in mid-afternoon on a cold late-fall or earlywinter day with the closest of friends and family.
My cassoulet journey began two years ago, not in France but—oddly enough—in the upper reaches of the Columbia River Basin at the base of the Huckleberry Mountains, near the small town of Rice, Washington. There, nestled in the foothill ponderosa pines on 36 acres, Rick and Lora Lea Misterly have carved out a life full of wonder, hard work and goats. As goat herders, farmers, cheesemakers and teachers at Quillisascut Farm, Salish* for “place of scattered bushes,” the Misterlys are living their dream in full seasonal color, with deep roots and a desire to share the good life with friends and strangers.
For one week in mid-September, 2010, my husband Macon, 13 students, one chef and one sous chef gathered at Rick and Lora Lea’s farm to totally immerse themselves in farm life and the culinary arts, from butchery to whole food cooking, hearth bread baking to cheese making, putting up the harvest to the fundamentals of flavor, seed gathering to harvest garden care.
Cassoulet is a favorite fall dish at Quillisascut, and the process of preparing it is the climax of the week-long farm school. After Macon’s return, our home was abuzz with stories from Quillisascut, particularly of the enjoyment he experienced preparing cassoulet. For Macon, it is now a dish that signifies the Misterly family, their farm and their region. This single dish forged lifelong friendships and led to the mastering of new skills in cooking, animal care and farm life. I couldn’t help but be inspired. I had to learn more and, good gracious, I had to taste it! But I wanted to do it right, as a tribute to my region.
The beauty of cassoulet is in the ingredients. They are relatively simple to procure if you are willing to look right into the gardens, produce fields, pastures and barnyards of your greater community. When I envisioned preparing this dish, I wanted to know the faces behind each ingredient. I wanted their stories to be embedded in the quilt—to honor their place at the table.
Cassoulet has several key ingredients: duck, pork, lamb, chicken, white beans, bread, herbs, and vegetables including tomato, onion and garlic. Procuring each was half the fun.
Sixty miles from our home in Viroqua is the small town of Caledonia, Minnesota, and the home of Christian Gasset and his wife, Liz Gibson-Gasset. Christian, a native of the Languedoc region of France, and Liz, a Nebraska native, have been quietly raising and selling some of the best duck meat in the country since 2004. Au Bon Carnard, French for “good duck,” and the name of the Gassets’ farm and business, has a high market demand for literally every part of the duck that is edible.
The Gassets run a very small, tightly-managed operation where, annually, 2,000 Muscovy and Pekin-mix ducks are raised from duckling through final processing between September and May (they keep no birds during the hot, stressful months of summer). As a frequent visitor to Au Bon Canard, I am always wholly impressed with the work that Christian and Liz do so passionately with sincere reverence for the birds they raise.
With six duck legs and four pounds of duck fat from the Gassets, we were prepared to make duck confit, a key ingredient to any authentic cassoulet. “Confit” is a term applied to foods—usually meat and typically duck, chicken or goose—that is immersed, and ultimately preserved, in its own fat. A utilitarian preservation method that yields seriously tasty meat. It may be bacon’s only true competitor.
In my effort to source pork and make new farm friends, I decided to reach out to Vince and Dawn Hundt, owners of Poplar Ridge Organic Farm and St. Brigid’s Meadows. The latter they co-operate with a sweet, young farm couple, Jason and Kristin Blankenheim.
Twenty miles northwest of Viroqua on Poplar Coulee Ridge, the Hundt Family has been “farming gracefully” since 1978. They primarily focused on dairy and grassfed beef until they purchased a second certified organic farm in 2006, St. Brigid’s Meadows. Here a herd of 50 Jersey cows, rotationally grazed on 60 acres of certified organic pasture, produce more than 100 gallons of fresh milk every day of the year. In addition, laying hens, pastured poultry and pastured Yorkshire and Red Wattle hogs each play their part in creating a healthy and balanced farm ecosystem.
True farmers to the core, the Hundts and the Blankenheims work tirelessly to maintain not just one but two thriving farms with genuine commitment to sustainable business ethics and land stewardship. Their high-quality, full flavor pork is a testament to their hard work.
For the lamb I knew just who to call: our friend Bonnie Wideman. Bonnie and her partner, Craig Scott, care for 160 acres of the most beautiful land the Driftless has to offer—rolling green pastures with native grasses, mixed hardwood forests and oak savannahs, and clear, cold springs. Pine Knob Farm, 13 miles southwest of Viroqua, is certified organic and permanently protected with a Mississippi Valley Conservancy easement prohibiting future development, mining, pesticides or herbicides, and restricts the land use to no more than 5 percent in row crops.
Bonnie and Craig manage a herd of 24 Hereford-Red Devon mix beef cows (including one large Red Devon bull by the name of “Fuzzy Bear”) and 200 Katahdin sheep, a breed from north central Maine with high resiliency and low-input management needs.
They commit to raising only enough animals that the land can support. They are able to accomplish this through pasture improvement efforts and growing all of their grain requirements on the farm. According to Bonnie, “It’s all about the health of the land. The health of the animals will follow.” Their hard work and dedication is evident in the outstanding taste of their lamb—a true representation of what the land can offer when cared for responsibly.
Given the absence of local poultry processing facilities, sourcing (really) local organic chicken can be more difficult than one would imagine, so it can take some pre-planning. Thanks to our many local Amish producers, we were in luck. Jacob and Cevilla Byler of Dach Ridge Farm, a mere six miles southwest of Viroqua, raise organic meat chickens for sale to customers who are willing to preorder in the spring. Having already signed up to receive four fresh, whole, plucked chickens each month for June, August and September, I was well-prepared. This is a great way to ensure that you have a freezer stocked with some of the besttasting pastured chicken you can find.
In my community, if you don’t grow your own dry beans you can most surely source them from one of the many Amish farms that dot the hillsides and valleys of the Driftless. I was able to source dry white beans from Amish growers Perry and Mary Glick, who farm 44 acres nine miles southwest of Viroqua. Together with their seven sons, they grow 13 acres of organic produce, white beans being one of their many offerings.
(Really Good) Bread
One of the signature traits of cassoulet is the bread crumb crust. The crust is a result of the crumb solidifying with the different meat fats that rise to the surface during the cooking process. Myth has it that the crust must be broken seven times with the back of a wooden spoon moments before eating to bless the dish and ward off bad luck.
Do not settle for mediocre bread when preparing the crumb for cassoulet unless you have no other alternative. I was able to source crusty, artisan-made bread right in my small town thanks to Jeff Shields of Tochko Baking in Viroqua. My family visits Jeff and his partner Robin Mari at the Saturday farmers market to pick up our weekly supply of fresh bread. Jeff ’s bread is representative of naturally leavened, rustic-style loaves in boules or batards with deep earthy flavors, an open crumb structure and nice golden crust. The perfect bread for cassoulet.
Vegetables & Herbs
Sourcing fresh, local and organic produce is as simple as throwing a dart and watching it fall on one of the many small, diversified family farms that call Southern Wisconsin home. Three of our favorite farmers are brothers Josh and Noah Engel and business partner Mike Lind of Driftless Organics.
In the heart of the picturesque Star Valley, 17 miles south of Viroqua, Driftless Organics farms roughly 86 certified organic ridge and valley acres. In 1993, following their mother’s orders to “turn off the Atari and go plant potatoes,” Josh (age 11) and Noah (age 9) started their first farm business, Rainbow Potatoes, and were going to farmers markets before they could legally drive.
In 2005, now operating under the name Driftless Organics, Noah and Josh met Mike Lind, an artist turned farmer, who had a knack for not only growing outstanding produce but also the highly coveted skills of marketing and sales. By 2006, Mike had officially joined the Driftless Organics team. With a 420-member CSA and a successful organic sunflower oil operation, these boys know what they are doing, and I am proud to call them not only my friends, but my farmers.
For the cassoulet, we sourced sunflower oil, garlic and onions from Driftless Organics. The sunflower oil was used as a delicious local substitute for olive oil. In lieu of fresh tomatoes since they weren’t quite in season at the time of our cassoulet journey, tomato sauce from the Rooted Spoon Culinary larder, put up last summer for just this sort of occasion, was a great alternative. Finally, fresh thyme, lavender buds and garlic scapes were picked straight from my backyard garden.
Ingredients sourced, it is now time to prepare the cassoulet, which, together with my husband and chef, Macon Luhning, of the Viroqua-based Rooted Spoon Culinary, I have been busily doing for three days. Feast day has finally come.
At the Rooted Spoon Kitchen Table dining room, the tables are stacked in one long row with places set for 20 guests. Meadow flowers of bergamot, coneflower and wild columbine are gathered for this customarily simple, shared dinner with friends.
The most robust of red wines is served—the Bordeaux and Côtes du Rhône with well-structured, spicy notes is perfect. Baskets with large hunks of crusty, artisan bread accompany quenelle-shaped butter rolled with Fleur De Sel, rosemary and thyme. Just wine, butter and bread are all that’s needed to accompany this hearty dish.
Our guests arrive shortly after six. No one waits to be seated; we are all friends here. Some new, some old, but definitely friends. Tonight’s dinner is different than most. Tonight we have asked each of the producers who contributed ingredients to the cassoulet to come to our table, to taste the flavors of their labors, to witness their food story from farm to plate.
The wine is poured and the once quiet space is filled with lighthearted chatter and laughter. In the kitchen, anticipation builds as the cassoulet is pulled from the oven and left to rest before serving. With three French-born and -raised guests at the table— Monique Hooker (Brittany), Christian Gasset (Languedoc) and Jean Luc Rondreux (Paris)—a sense of anxiousness unfolds. Will they approve of our Driftless-inspired cassoulet? Will deep-seated rivalries play out at our dinner table? Will we be eschewed for the inclusion of tomato sauce, a definite “no-no” among some cassoulet devotees? Our worries would soon be eased in full-fat, tasty goodness.
The word cassoulet is derived from the earthenware vessel it is traditionally cooked in, the cassolle or cassolo, and is not only a feast for the hungry, but a feast for the eyes. The crust is broken no more or less than seven times, blessing the dish. The table is bestowed with small bowls to discard the bones in, and each guest is served an ample helping of hot, savory-perfumed cassoulet. My husband sits in unrest until our guests take their first bite, then second, then third before pausing with mouths full to exclaim their delight in the “rich, complex flavors,” “perfectly cooked and seasoned meats,” “creamy, not mushy, beans,” and “oh, the duck is amazing!” The best compliment of all comes from all three French-born: “It tastes just as we remember.”
The wine continues to flow, the bread is generously buttered and every last bite of cassoulet is eaten, down to the last bean. The room is loud now, filled with the sound of full and deliciously happy people. There is a connectedness to the food, the people and this place that imbues the air. The efforts of farmer, artisan, and chef are not overlooked tonight—not with this dish.
Here in the Driftless we are all connected by this land we so deeply love. I feel full, not only from the shared meal, but from listening to the story of each producer and artisan, discovering how each life-thread is so intimately woven into this landscape we call home. Their stories strengthen and bring life to the seams that bind the quilt of this place, as with each ingredient in this dish. Cassoulet: it may be French in origin, but it will always be Driftless to me.
Cassoulet is a complex dish to create, but with patience, a little time and a good recipe, you can also enjoy this delicious French bean stew among good friends. The Quillisascut Cassoulet recipe used for our dinner party comes from the book Chefs on the Farm, Recipes and Inspirations from the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts. For more about Quillisascut visit their website: www.quillisascut.com.
A special note from the author: Heart-felt thanks goes out to each of the producers and artisans who work so passionately at providing my community with sustainable and lovingly-produced foods. A special thanks to my husband, Macon Luhning, for inspiring the dish in the first place and for joining me in the kitchen as we re-created the cassoulet story right here in our place, the Driftless. Thank you also to Monique Hooker for serving as a mentor on my cassoulet journey, and to Rooted Spoon Culinary and Dani Lind for the use of your well-appointed kitchen and for hosting the cassoulet dinner. It was such a blast!