Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Finding a Good Cassoulet

Well the cold weather has hit, it now gets dark at 6pm and that can only mean one thing in my book, it's time to make the first cassoulet for the cold season. Cassoulet is such a delicious dish and I relegate it to the cold months for a number of reasons. First, it is a very heavy dish of stewed beans and meats and quite honestly who wants to be bogged down with a heavy stewed dish like that in the hot summer? Second I live in a small apartment and the process of making the cassoulet is one that really heats up the apartment. (Just as a note, the picture to the left there is the cassoulet that has been in my oven all night)

In the first step I am braising either pork or lamb in a pot and then in another pot I'm simmering beans with veggies, ham hocks, etc. This gives off such an huge amount of steam and heats the place up even with the air conditioning on, "it's not so much the heat but the humidity" lol. Then it goes into a 400 degree oven for an hour and then for 3 hours at 275. That really heats the place up a lot as well, "aw but that's a dry heat." I'm not going to get into cassoulet itself too much as I made a post here which was my first Gastronomical Inspirations post that had a recipe for the dish.

What I do want to talk about is restaurants in Boston that sell cassoulet. I've actually been to a few that offer the dish and I thought I'd offer my recollections in case you may want to check out the locations yourself with this cold weather hitting us here in the northeastern part of the United States.

One of the first restaurants I dined at in Boston was Petit Robert Bistro, located in Kenmore Square. Their cassoulet takes the win for the least expensive at $14.00. The sausage was a traditional Toulousian, garlic sausage with good flavor, the confit on the dish was a bit flavorless, but the real disappointment was the beans, they were extremely tough and undercooked. Beans in a cassoulet should be cooked to the point that they just barely hold their shape. This is a product of haute cuisine which removed the long cooking process which you'll find in my recipe. The flavors were good though, just not something I would go out of the way for. The top was sprinkled with JAPANESE panko crumbs (not even browned), I think Escoffier just rolled over in his grave...

Another cassoulet I have had, was at The Butcher Shop. I loved the presentation here. It was served in a small earthenware pot, which honestly was probably a flower pot, but it had the appearance of a casoul which is the dish a cassoulet is traditionally cooked in. The beans were also Tarbais beans, which are an AOC product designated for the proper traditional production of cassoulet in France. The major flaw is the same that hindered the Petit Robert dish. The beans were tough, undercooked and honestly the flavors of everything in the dish were not melded together. It was almost as if all of the ingredients were simmered together and then tossed in the pot. Sad to say, I think this was my least favorite, and was not indicative of the restaurant because otherwise the restaurant is one of my favorites in Boston. However, the cassoulet had none of the traditional flavors of a true cassoulet.

On another night I had the advantage of trying the cassoulet of Brassarie Jo which is near the Prudential Center. I've been telling myself I don't like this restaurant for awhile, but for some odd reason I have returned a number of times. The service is mediocre, the food in general is so-so and the cavernous room reminds me of a large banquet hall, not a French brasserie dining room. At any rate, the one good thing this place does put out is the weekly special on Thursdays. It is a traditional Toulousian with sausage, duck confit and pork. The flavors are spot on, again the only issue is the toughness of the beans and slightly undercooked, but not to bad. This just again comes from not cooking the cassoulet the traditional peasant way.

The most recent one was a couple months ago at Gaslight Brasserie du Coin, which is the newest brasserie addition to Boston. Loud, semi-raucous, yet subdued atmosphere which seems to me to be very traditional French. Cassoulet for them is a Sunday event. Curious how the menu for both Brassarie Jo and this place look the same, and they both feature cassoulet on their menus as weekly specials. Jo has been around a lot longer though, Gaslight just opened. This cassoulet was served in an individual cast iron pan. The smells were incredible, the flavors were spot on, but it shared the same fate of the Brassarie Jo cassoulet with the undercooked tough beans.

So of the four I just mentioned, I would have to say the Gaslight Brasserie du Coin and Brasserie Jo were my favorites. If I had to choose one, I would have to go with Gaslight, because it had a bit more flavor and honestly the atmosphere and much better service are much more appealing. I keep wondering however, why do these restaurants serve this dish with the beans improperly cooked and the flavors not completely melded together by the long cooking process. If one were to tell me, it is because they can not take up the oven for such a lengthy process, then I say "why serve the dish at all?"

I think the answer lays more in the fact that people just don't know. Not only the consumer who assumes that this is the way it should be, but the chefs as well. When the constant is to make the dish this way, it becomes the norm, and that is a shame, until then, if you want the most traditional cassoulet you can come to my house, or try out my recipe, lucky for the people in my classes the next two nights they get to imbibe in my cassoulet.

1 comment:

Han said...

I've been trying to find a decent version of this classic dish this winter and your post has made my decision much easier. Thank you from one foodie to another

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