I had to look up the word cassoulet after seeing a picture posted on one of my neighbor’s Facebook pages. She is a really good cook, one that can quietly whip up a ragu from scratch while entertaining some of us neighbors for afternoon wine and cheese. I’ve heard she makes things like osso bucco, one of those classic dishes that legends are made of. So when I saw the photo of the cassoulet last night I knew it was something special, and foodie that I am, a bit embarrassed that I didn’t really know…
Keep in mind that I had soaked and cooked a pot of white cannelli beans just two days ago, not quite completely soft, still a little al dente, now sitting in the pot in the fridge waiting for their destination. That same day I split a good size organic chicken, roasted half of it smeared with herbs of Provence and a pile of sliced carrots, and cut up the other half in pieces to be used for some sort of stew in the next few days. ‘French’ was already in the air. And what are the chances that I would have a can of actual bacon drippings in the fridge, saved from a pound of locally made gorgeous thick sliced peppered bacon that I cooked as a once every few years departure from not eating pork. The fact that this can was still gracing the back of the shelf in the fridge meant something. I had onions and carrots, and even fresh parsley. I had a package of my favorite thick uncured turkey bacon. I even had a container of homemade chicken stock in the freezer, the good kind that gets really gelatinous when cooled.
I looked up cassoulet. Why was I not surprised? Of course the most traditional versions of this classic French bean and meat casserole are made with a plethora of pork products and duck or goose, but the first recipe I come across was actually made with chicken. I could try make a go of it without the copious amounts of salt pork it called for, or the pork sausages. I could cook the turkey bacon in the reserved drippings to capture the spirit of traditional flavor. I could simply leave out the sausages. I’d have to adapt the timing of things to account for the fact that the beans were already cooked. I’d have to hope that all the adaptations I made would still allow for the characteristic ‘crust’ of this slow cooked dish to form.
Even though I was just getting over a mild stomach bug and common sense told me that maybe this wasn’t a good time for such an adventure, there was no stopping the momentum to get my Emile Henry dutch oven filled and in the oven for the 5-6 hour slow bake. I consulted a recipe that felt authentic: http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2014/10/traditional-french-cassoulet-recipe.html and ended up with this process,
After browning both the turkey bacon and the chicken pieces in reserved bacon drippings and set aside in a bowl, onion was sautéed in the pan with leftover fat. Images of meals across time come to me in the aroma of this familiar experience of food cooking with bacon. Kind of like Mom and being Mom. The experience of my own mother is always there, regardless of how far away I am now, or of the difference in our lives since I left the nest. Just a simple whiff of something so potent can elicit memory of all the times I have made bacon for my kids growing up, trying to keep it safe, wrapped in paper towels until time for breakfast, how just the aroma would bring them out of their rooms in no time at all. While the onions are moving toward translucency in the pot, I make a bouquet garni of the carrot, bay leaves, parsley, garlic, and cloves called for in the recipe, cinch the cheesecloth with a piece of string and go to retrieve the chicken broth, which has been sitting in a water bath in order to to coax the frozen solid to disengage from the container it was stored in. It slides out easily into the pot, ready to slowly become one with the warmth of the onion. As it melts, I add the bouquet garni and have a sense that this is where the alchemy of this dish becomes distinct, as the two join to become family in the pot. I think of the particular constellation of my own very different children, one male, one female, one with 46 chromosomes, one with 47 chromosomes, one who has chosen to live very far away, one who has no choice but to live close by, growing up together to become athletes, connected to life through music, as as loving siblings. Once the stock is melted and simmering, I let the two hang out together for awhile before adding the drained beans.
This little bit of time in the pot together makes all the difference in the world. As a mother, I realize how precious those first eighteen years have been, when children get to explore who they are together, regardless of and because of the tending ways of a parent. When I can smell the hint of clove in the air, I add the beans, bring the mixture to a slow simmer, cover, and cook for just ten minutes or so, don’t want to overcook the already partially cooked beans, just wishing for them to enter this new place and find their own path for integrating who they are with the rest.
The oven had been preheated to 300 degrees. The browned chicken and bacon haven’t really been set aside and forgotten about. The aroma of the browning has lingered. The reach of the thread of motherhood that connects me to me from my own mother and grandmothers is so strong. It is inevitable that I can stay away for too long. The meat is nestled into the beans, just resting on top so as not to be consumed or overly protected, the vulnerability of wise flesh still available for more growth.
Now comes the slow cooking that, like the melding of memories, brings us all together again. I honor one grandmother who managed to unite all the generations of her Albanian family over and over again with her spectacularly simple homemade food. I honor my other grandmother who grew up poor during the depression in this country, who never took a pot of baked beans or homemade chicken stock for granted. I honor my own mother who embraced every good thing her generation could offer, making a strong foundation for me to build on.
It truly is a slow bake. The aroma in the house becomes intoxicating and just when I think I can’t take it anymore the sun comes out after a week of relentless gray and rain, and Nora and I head out to the woods. Before we leave, I remove the bouquet garni and add a little water to the pot. There is a particular rock with a particular face along the path we walk that I am being drawn to visit. I’m not sure why this particular image feels like a symbol of something meaningful, but I find myself, down on my knees, regarding the swirl etched in the stone with reverence again.
Something about the marking suggests that she has been dancing with Mother Earth for awhile now. There is a tiny dot of moss emerging as if to signal that even this stone isn’t finished growing. The pot comes out of the oven upon our return. The top has crusted over and become a protective rich tasty crunch. I wait only a minute before dipping a fork down into the softened beans, moist and oh so fragrant, and emerge with a bite of ancient creamy flavor.
I pull one of my mother’s signature bowl/plates down from the shelf. My favorite blue one. It’s time to honor Mother. A perfect amount of the cassoulet is dished out to share space with the new fresh greens on the other side.
I am transported to my pot of everything that feels good. Even so I know I might add a little more liquid next time, might continue to honor a growing flow of memory that always connects back to mother.