When you say "cassoulet," beans immediately come to mind. And, of course, they should, because the classical cassoulet, a French stew cooked in a casserole, is made with shelled haricot beans as well a meat.
Well, cassoulets are not only confined to beans.
We discovered, for instance, at La Palm D'ore at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes this summer, a lovely lobster cassoulet with tiny melon balls, prepared in the manner of the cassoulet.
Cassoulets of vegetables abound and can be found in both the classical and nouvelle cuisines. And, risking the ire of cassoulet purists, there are even desserts that go under the name of cassoulet, because of the manner in which they are cooked.
"Chefs are always looking for new ways to prepare old classics. In today's terms, cassoulet refers only the manner of cooking, not just to the classical dish," said Tim Keating, chef at the Meridien Hotel in Newport Beach.
So among the recipes given here you will find a number of the loose translations of savory cassoulets, including a cassoulet made with black beans and chiles, as well as (die-hards please close ears and eyes) a dessert prepared in the manner of the cassoulet, inspired by a fruit dessert enjoyed at the Chantecler restaurant at the Hotel Negresco in Nice last summer.
But to fill you in on the classical dish, the basic formula calls for beans cooked separately from meats and vegetables, then layered in a casserole to finish baking all together. The ingredients used and subtleties of cooking methods vary with the cook and the region. According to "Larousse Gastronomique: Encyclopedia of Food, Wine and Cookery" (Crown Books), the cassoulet made in Languedoc, where cassoulet originates, is considered the most praiseworthy. In the Languedoc version, cassoulet is prepared with pork and mutton, goose or duck and sausages in an earthenware dish known as cassolle d'Issel, from which the name cassoulet derives. Issel refers to the clay with which the earthenware terrine is formed. Some cooks prepare the beans and meats together, but finish the cooking in a baker's oven, which, in old times, according to Larousse, was heated with brushwood of mountain furze (prickly evergreen shrub).
It is this version, which, more often than not, one finds served in restaurants both in France and in cities here, with minor variations.
Taking liberties with the same idea, we gave French cassoulet a south-of-the-border touch by substituting black beans for haricot beans and used chiles to season the dish. And instead of the usual array of meats, we used pork.
In another recipe for a vegetable cassoulet, mushrooms cooked with herbs are transferred to individual casseroles to finish cooking with a sprinkling of herbed bread crumbs for a first course.
We also give a recipe for turkey cassoulet based on the original, which shows there is more than one way to go.
The lobster with melon will make a elegant light supper or fanciful first course. Melons, though less expensive in season, are available the year-round these days. You might consider the fruit cassoulet recipe given here as the dessert accompaniment to the lobster meal for an elegant finale.
And, finally, a squash and tomato cassoulet can be a wonderful accompaniment to a party roast, which needs only a wonderful bread and some good red or white wine.
LOBSTER CASSOULET WITH MELON BALLS
2 tablespoons butter
2 pounds lobster tails
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
Dash chopped fresh or dried tarragon
Dash chopped fresh or dried thyme
1/2 melon, cut into tiny balls
1 tablespoon melon liqueur
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons water
Melt butter in saucepan large enough to hold lobster tails. Add lobster tails and saute until tails turn red. Remove and set aside to cool.
Add white wine, parsley, tarragon, thyme and salt and pepper to taste to saucepan. Bring to boil. Boil 5 minutes or until reduced.
Remove lobster flesh and cube. Add to saucepan with melon balls and liqueur. Dissolve cornstarch with water. Stir into sauce. Bring to boil. Cook and stir until thickened and clear. When ready to serve, bake at 350 degrees 10 minutes or until heated through. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
CASSOULET OF BLACK BEANS AND CHILES
1 pound black beans
10 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1/4 pound salt pork
2 to 4 whole cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, diced
1 onion, diced
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons tomato puree
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 hot chiles, diced, seeds removed
1 pound lean pork, diced, or 3 sausages
1 to 2 1/2 teaspoons thyme
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon rosemary leaves
1 cup dry or fine fresh bread crumbs
Mexican crema, sour cream or creme fraiche
Combine beans, broth, salt pork, garlic, carrot and onion in large saucepan. Bring to boil. Boil 2 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let stand 1 hour to soften.
To finish cooking, bring again to boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 1 hour. Remove salt pork and beans. Strain bean liquid and stir in flour and tomato puree.