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Praising Braising : Mother's Goose and Beans

October 27, 1994|AMY EPHRON | Ephron is a writer and producer.

I never thought of my mother as a Francophile since the only two French dishes that ever came out of her kitchen were bouillabaisse and cassoulet. On the other hand, when I was 5, she did redecorate the house and plastered one wall of the living room with a map of Paris, which she had had made into wallpaper.

I remember spending hours lying on the white shag rug, staring at the picture of the Eiffel Tower on the wall (the closest I ever got to Paris when I was a kid), and I remember distinctly the smell of those two dishes as they came from the kitchen. Bouillabaisse will always remind me of elegant dinner parties. But cassoulet I think of as the ultimate comfort food. Haute cuisine comfort food, but comfort food nonetheless.

There are people who would argue that cassoulet is a provincial dish, not haute cuisine . Besides, they'd point out, it can be made from leftovers. In fact, I once ordered cassoulet at a three-star restaurant in Paris and all the snotty Parisians I was with laughed at me. Why was I ordering a peasant dish at a three-star restaurant? Because it reminded me of my mother and I wanted to see what it should really taste like. (For the same reason, I once ordered chicken mole at a fast-food stand outside a rug store in Tehuatitlan. I did get violently ill but still maintain it was one of the best things I ever ate.)

I have a friend who thinks cassoulet is commune cooking (the inclusion of beans, perhaps?), but I don't know how many communes have leftover duck or saucisson in their refrigerator. Julia Child thinks cassoulet is an elaborate dish best cooked, in leisurely fashion, over a two- to three-day period, and for a perfect cassoulet, she's probably right. It probably takes that long for the lamb (if you're using lamb) to soak up every bit of flavor of the red wine it has been braised in and for the taste of the beans to merge with the tomatoes and sausages and other meats.

My mother agreed with Julia Child, but mother had a full-time cook named Evelyn Hall, who operated as a sous-chef on the rare occasions (cassoulet and bouillabaisse being two of them) when mother did more in the kitchen than hand over the recipe.

Mother was always bringing food home from her trips. Other people's mothers brought home paperweights and snowballs; mine returned with packets of paprika tucked in the side pocket of her suitcase. She once smuggled a saucisson from France in her white satin hosiery bag and flew home from New York via Boston just so she could buy, at Logan Airport, a crate of live lobsters packed in dry ice. In fact, the first time we made cassoulet was after she returned from Long Island with a shopping bag full of Long Island ducks.

Mother didn't have much cookbook loyalty. Sometimes she used Julia Child's recipe for cassoulet, sometimes this recipe from a cookbook called "The Flavor of France" by Narcisse and Samuel Chamberlain (which I'm using here because it's much the simpler of the two).

I like to improvise and use duck instead of goose or chicken sausages instead of pork and sometimes, olive oil instead of butter. I make it from leftovers because I think it's silly to cook a goose in order to make a cassoulet.

CASSOULET

1 pound dried white beans, soaked overnight

1 onion, stuck with 2 cloves

1 bouquet garni, or 1 teaspoon dry bouquet garni mix

Salt

1/2 pound lean salt pork, diced coarsely and blanched

1 garlic sausage, cut in pieces

3 tablespoons butter

1/2 small young goose, cut in serving pieces

1 onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped

Pepper

Buttered bread crumbs

Drain beans and cover with 1 1/2 quarts fresh water. Add onion with cloves, bouquet garni and 1 teaspoon salt. Simmer over low heat 1 1/2 hours. Drain and reserve cooking liquid.

In skillet brown salt pork and sausage in butter. Remove meat and brown goose well on all sides in remaining fat (if using leftovers, skip this step). In same skillet cook onion, garlic, tomatoes, 1/2 cup reserved bean stock and salt and pepper to taste, covered, 20 minutes.

In large casserole, put half beans, salt pork, sausage, goose and add half of tomato sauce. Add remainder of beans, remainder of sauce and enough bean stock to come just to surface. Bake at 275 degrees 2 hours, adding more bean stock occasionally if necessary.

Sprinkle top with buttered bread crumbs. Bake uncovered 1 hour more, until brown crust has formed. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Each of 8 servings contains about:

670 calories; 456 mg sodium; 200 mg cholesterol; 29 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 63 grams protein; 3.71 grams fiber.

In cassoulet photo background mats are from Bristol Farms Cook 'N' Things, South Pasadena. caption

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