The latest in warm winter cassoulets

Bistrot La Minettes cassoulet contains young lamb instead of mutton, house-made pork sausage, duck confit, white wine, and baguette-crumb crust. Heavenly. And coming very soon from Jose Garces: Yet another cassoulet!
Bistrot La Minettes cassoulet contains young lamb instead of mutton, house-made pork sausage, duck confit, white wine, and baguette-crumb crust. Heavenly. And coming very soon from Jose Garces: Yet another cassoulet!

Sniffing out the aromatic and comforting French stews of white beans and various meats, and meeting new ones.

Posted: February 21, 2010

Our friends' stout, old country house is more in the mood of a cabin, really - burly rafters, massive stone hearth, a blaze of sunlight, last weekend at least, bouncing off the snow, flooding in through the low, eave-shaded windows.

It is tucked into a hillside in lower Berks County, in farm country between Huff's Church and Hereford, and for years it is where we've retreated in deep winter for a lazy afternoon feast (followed by a reanimating postprandial walk down the rural lanes).

The menu is not rigid. But if it veers one year, it always circles back the next to the specialty of the woman of the house - grand, steamy servings of cassoulet, followed by a green salad (dressed with oil and the finest sherry vinegar), and a dessert often supplied by a guest (in the most recent case, rote grutze mit vanillemilch, a German berry-and-cherry gelatin pudding that takes on a rustic elegance topped with sweetened vanilla-flavored milk).

February can be a cruel month for local produce. But the larder has no such restraint, nor the smokehouse.

So our own copper kettle has been working overtime, producing surpluses of beef stews with wine and lots of browned carrots; and caldo verde, the kale-sausage-potato soup; and a hearty Hungarian goulash of sorts, a pork-tenderloin and sauerkraut confection ennobled with sweet paprika and caraway seed.

We give it away to neighbors, take it to potluck dinners. And still it lingers, overloading the freezer basket, filling up all the old yogurt tubs.

The cassoulet-making, on the other hand, we generally leave to others. By late January or February we await the call, crossing our fingers that we haven't been cut from the ranks of the Berks County elect.

The cassoulet there began rather traditionally several years ago, the white bean and meat casserole (cassoulet derives from cassole, the sometimes conical earthen pot it's cooked in) laden with duck and baked under a crust of bread crumbs, in the style common in Toulouse, the French capital of cassoulet.

It has evolved in recent winters to a more open, stewier offering - Catalan-style shoulder of lamb with garlic and white beans - the recipe for which can be found in Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France, or by just typing its name into Google.

In this version, the duck disappears, the lamb takes center stage; garlic sausage the only other meat, not counting the pancetta. Suffice to say, this year's rendition was voted best of the lot, the beans juicy with garlicky flavor, the cubed lamb abidingly tender.

You'd think that a certain satiety or sufficiency would set in. But it only stoked my hunger to explore other cassoulets. (Perhaps, a friend suggested, I might want to look into membership in the Universal Cassoulet Academy, a red-robed society dedicated to the dish and sponsor of tours of the "cassoulet trail" - Castelnaudary (where pork, ham hocks, ham, and pork skin inform the cassoulet); Carcassonne (which adds in mutton); and Toulouse (the trademark of which is garlic sausage and the confit of duck or goose).

Actually, the quiet streets of Queen Village seemed a bit more within easy grasp. So on Mardi Gras night we found ourselves at Bistrot La Minette, the bistro at Sixth and Bainbridge, ordering the decidedly Toulousean style that chef Peter Woolsey picked up from a friend of his French wife, Peggy's, family.

The "mutton" is replaced by younger lamb, in deference to American tastes. The pork sausage is house-made and fried to order in duck fat, its chopped (not ground) stuffing made from pork belly and pork shoulder. There is the requisite duck confit, "copious amounts of white wine," the white navy beans, and bread-crumb crust made from the day-old baguettes.

It is an aromatic dish, in the end, the crisped duck and the lamb retaining their own personality, the beans (unlike in lesser renditions in the city) firm, moist, and tender.

With a glass of red wine it was not merely satisfying. Each mouthful brought new flavors, new textures, revealing Woolsey's own take: No garlic, for instance, in his sausage; salt and pepper, period.

You'd think that might tide a soul over. But the next day I glanced over the menu at the new Garces Trading Company, the 74-seat cafe and market (and appended wine shop) at 11th and Locust. My companion and I shared, among other things, a brilliantly conceived sweet-hot Italian sandwich of bresaola, hot cappicola, melted taleggio, arugula, and lemon confit on lightly toasted fresh-baked focaccia.

But out of the corner of my eye, under the plats du jour, I couldn't avoid the temptress. She was beckoning under "Tuesday": cassoulet with duck confit, Toulouse sausage served with a side of Swiss chard and honey turnips.

Tuesday? That's just two days away.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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