January 14, 2013

Cassoulet All the Way

Who says cassoulet can't include pizza toppings?

I love the contrarian and agrarian bent of Jimmy's No. 43's annual Cassoulet Cookoff, which unspooled yesterday afternoon amid an avalanche of delectable bean and pork stews.  While the general post-holiday zeitgeist is centered on exercise and diet apps (and maybe even the actual doing of exercise) the irrepressible Jimmy Carbone takes the opposite tack, massaging winter blues away with a healthy dose of beer and cassoulet.  Thus, even though it was unseasonably balmy, the annual cookoff went forward at Carbone's boisterous East Village pub/restaurant.

Jimmy, as I've written before, is a tireless planner of events and doer of good, in this case donating all proceeds from the event (over $2,000) to Grow NYC and in particular to its very cool Youthmarket Farmstand Project.

Close to a dozen professional and amateur chefs showed up with steaming pots of cassoulet, and the variety and imagination on display were dazzling. The beans alone could have staffed a whole legume runway show. There were giant cream-colored butter beans winking from a delicious Iberian cassoulet featuring Asturian cider and Spanish blood sausage; Cayuga pinto beans with pulled pork, porter beer and fresh mozzarella; Great Northern beans from Matt, a home cook who riffed on Julia Child's recipe with lamb shoulder, goat, and Toulouse and garlic sausages; black-eyed beans camouflaged among burnt brisket ends from Mighty Quinn's Barbecue; a black bean cassoulet, and in the winning cassoulet, flageolet beans.

The winner: Laura Luciano.

Laura Luciano, a gifted amateur chef from Long Island who blogs at Out East Foodie, swept both the People's Choice and the judge's top spot (yours truly was a member of the second group), proving, as emcee and himself a producer of food "take-down" events Matt Timms, said, "that the judges are as smart as the people."

Luciano's two-to-three day cassoulet whispering process makes it clear why hers tasted so deep and transporting, as if French monks had been chanting over it for weeks. She braised pork butt on the stove with celery onion, carrots and bay leaf, added duck stock and cognac, and finished the braise in the oven.  Luciano pureed all the aromatics from her braise and added the mixture to her simmering flageolet beans, along with pancetta and duck sausage. Oh, and she confited her own duck and made her own duck sausage for the first time in her life, too, adding a layer duck fat to her beans as they cooked. Luciano credited much of the deliciousness of her dish to plenty of duck fat, though the fact that she took zero short-cuts mattered just as much. To top it all off, she added finely ground duck cracklings and minced micro carrot and parsley greens to her bread crumbs--all of it toasted, of course, in duck fat.

The judges' scorecard.

As we mulled over our top picks, several judges pointed out that a few of our favorites tasted great but weren't true cassoulets, such as the Iberian cassoulet and a delicious vegetarian cassoulet with parsnips created by Rich Pinto (so appropriately named that he was destined to place at least), a former Jimmy's No. 43 chef who still works the restaurant's catered and special events.  No problem, we just created a new category for them: "the best non-cassoulet cassoulets."

Back home, this discussion sent me to my Oxford Companion to Food, in which the late, great Alan Davidson wrote that the haricot bean is the most important ingredient in cassoulet, although Old World beans must have predated them (haricots did not arrive in France from the New World via Spain until the 16th century). Beyond that, though, there a fair amount of variety in French cassoulet meat types. Although pork and pork products predominate, cassoulet can include leg of mutton, duck,  goose or even confit d'oie (goose liver).

Despite its tradition-bound image, there are innovators in France: Davidson finds reference in Larousse Gastronomique to a cassoulet made with salt cod. Hear that, those of you planning your  bid for the sixth annual cassoulet cookoff title?


  1. Pleasure meeting you Nancy! Was alot of fun and great blog post about the event. — Best Wishes, OEF, Laura

  2. Thanks, Laura! Looking forward to following your exploits on your blog.