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John Whiting

eG Foodblog: John Whiting

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“Closed on account of cassoulet” is a sign that Prosper Montagné, author of the first Larousse Gastronomique, once saw on a bootmaker’s shop in Carcassone. Every year John Whiting follows the bootmaker’s example and cooks a birthday cassoulet for around a dozen friends. This Sunday will be his seventy-fifth—birthday, not cassoulet!—and his blog will document the countdown.

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Greetings! The monumental ecclecticism of the preceding food blogs makes me feel like a one-trick pony. When, to my astonishment, I was asked to write a food blog, I suggested that it be the week surrounding my annual birthday cassoulet. This year is my three-quarter-century milestone (millstone?), and so I feel especially privileged to share it with the eGullet universe.

Over the years, cassoulet has become a dish with which I particularly identify. Like bouillabaisse, it’s a peasant dish whose evolution embodies the anomalies that arise when such a humble tradition is subjected to gastrosnob gentrification. In the south of France, conflicting traditions have given rise to vigorous regional controversy: Castelnaudary, Toulouse and Carcassonne all claim that they invented it. Prosper Montagné, compiler of the first Larousse Gastronomique, came up with a metaphysical solution worthy of the Nicene Council. He reinvented the Holy Trinity, suggesting that there were three equal cassoulets—the Father (Castelnaudary), the Son (Carcassonne), and the Holy Spirit (Toulouse).

Waverley Root, I suspect, got it about right. He suggested that it all began in a continuously simmering cassole on the back of the stove, “serving as a sort of catch-all for anything edible that the cook might toss into the pot”. In the modern tradition, he found that the lowest common denominator was “a dish of white beans…cooked in a pot with some sort of pork and sausage. After that it is a case of fielder’s choice.”

This is borne out by Anatole France’s claim that the cassoulet at his favorite restaurant had been bubbling away for twenty years. My father once encountered a similar phenomenon. Almost a century ago in Kentucky, as a circuit-riding preacher, he was served a delicious soup by one of his parishioners. When he asked her for the recipe, she threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Lor’! There ain’t no recipe for soup! It jes’ accumulates!” These days, only Aga owners can easily take such a long view.

Some suggest that cassoulet derives from the Jewish cholent, set cooking in advance to eat on the Sabbath. Modern culinary practice is indeed reminiscent of the observation that it only takes one Talmudic scholar to start an argument; if you go into an isolated Languedoc village and ask fifty housewives how to make a cassoulet, you will get at least fifty-one recipes.

Or sometimes only one tradition and one cook. In Wales a few months ago, Elizabeth Luard told me about the Languedoc village where her children grew up, in which no one made their own cassoulet, but took their cassoles to a woman who was generally acknowledged to be the best cassoulet maker in the village. In the words of Elizabeth’s wonderful _Classic French Cooking_:

The Escrieux family, subsistence farmers with the right to operate their own still, potted their own confit, grew their own beans...and kept and slaughtered their own pig. No woman, she told me, ever claimed to make her own cassoulet, but boasted that it came from Madame Escrieux.

Or consider Samuel Chamberlain on Lyonnais bouchon owner La Mère Fillioux:

Her secret was disarmingly simple: Instead of preparing a great many dishes, concentrate on a very few and do them to perfection, day in and day out. Her reasoning was logical. “It takes years of study and experience to produce a perfect dish. I have spent my life perfecting five or six dishes. I will serve only these, but I will be sure of doing them perfectly.”

Such people did not learn out of books, but by rote and repetition. Our literate society has inevitably become a superficial society. We are able to swat everything up instantaneously: compared with the days of apprenticeship, every modern home cook, however expert, is merely a practitioner of fast food. We may know a lot more than we did, but most of us don't know it as well.

Not that I would like to go back to such a cultural climate. The endless predictable repetition would send me screaming over the nearest cliff. Perhaps the Gadarene swine were simply modernists before their time.

For further reflections on cassoulet, gluttons for punishment may go to Bouillabaisse, Cassoulet... on my website. Later today I’ll take you for a short trip to the Borough Market, where on Friday I picked up the essential ingredients for next Sunday’s modest little peasant feast. It will include photos, as soon as I learn how to get them out of my image file! (NOTE: The problem is solved.)


Edited by John Whiting (log)

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Welcome to foodblog, John. Your posts have been a highlight here at eG.

Cheers!

:smile:


Edited by johnnyd (log)

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Such people did not learn out of books, but by rote and repetition. Our literate society has inevitably become a superficial society. We are able to swat everything up instantaneously: compared with the days of apprenticeship, every modern home cook, however expert, is merely a practitioner of fast food. We may know a lot more than we did, but most of us don't know it as well.

Not that I would like to go back to such a cult

Nice start, but how on earth will you top that first post? :smile:

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So... exactly (or approximately) how many cassoulets HAVE you eaten? And did you have a different one every time?

Looking forward to reading your blog!

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My embarrassed apologies. :sad: I seem to have inadvertently posted an incomplete first installment. I've edited it and added the rest. For my next posting. I'm waiting for instructions as to how to insert photos from the ImageGullet file I've successfully set up.

EDIT: I seem to have grasped the principle (see first post). Onward and upward!

FURTHER EDIT: Several generous offers of help. I think I've cracked it.


Edited by John Whiting (log)

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So... exactly (or approximately) how many cassoulets HAVE you eaten? And did you have a different one every time?

Hard to say--maybe a couple of dozen. (Any more and I'd be buying my suits from a tentmaker!) And yes, they've all been different. Making cassoulets, like making love, should always contain an element of surprise.

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Making cassoulets, like making love, should always contain an element of surprise.

"Honey - no stay still! - have we ever spoken about bean casseroles..?"

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So... exactly (or approximately) how many cassoulets HAVE you eaten? And did you have a different one every time?

Hard to say--maybe a couple of dozen. (Any more and I'd be buying my suits from a tentmaker!) And yes, they've all been different. Making cassoulets, like making love, should always contain an element of surprise.

A couple of dozen, with plenty of time to formulate your thoughts in between, is formidable. I hope you will share the details of your past cassoulet experiences along with the one you'll be giving us this week. I look forward to the time leading up to your birthday with kind devotion! :smile:

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My weekly trip to the Borough Market is a test of my won’t power (as opposed…). It is gradually evolving into a working market to rival the French and the Italians, and minus the endless junk stalls that one increasingly encounters all over Europe. Even though it has become a popular tourist destination, with endless varieties on offer of the ubiquitous burger-in-a-bun, the standards remain high, and vegetarians are offered food that’s as easy on the eye as on the tongue.

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There are good sources of meat, cheese, condiments and various hard-to-find ingredients, nor will they necessarily make you bankrupt. The prominently located greengrocer Turnips may offer its produce at mind-boggling prices, but tucked off to one side is Booth’s, with a very good selection and a reasonable mark-up.

Every Friday morning through the summer I go to the Furness Fish Market for a fresh crab.

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They’re at the far left end of the counter, where it’s easy to duck around the mass of customers waiting for fish. But I don’t usually have to fight the crowds. At lunchtime, both Friday and Saturday, the Borough Market is like opening day at a new Ikea branch, but between 11 and 11:30 on a Friday it’s easy to shop and everything is freshly laid out. (That’s when these photos were taken; otherwise they’d show merely the backs of people’s heads.)

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There’s a good French cheese stall with lots of bargains. Its home base is Au Pot au Lait, Cremerie/Fromagerie, 17, Place de la Republique, 14100 Lisieux, Tel 31.61.04.03.

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Dan Degustibus offers a wonderful selection of breads made with total integrity. There he is, waving at the camera.

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The essential reason for the day’s visit is the pork and lamb. For pork, I’m happy with the purse-friendly Sillfield Farm, with its jolly rustics straight from Central Casting.

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Over on this side is the fresh meat, including an excellent Toulouse sausage. That’s what I’m here for, along with a couple of pig’s trotters and kilo of pork belly.

In the middle of the photo you’ll see a sign that reads Pork Haslet. That’s a Northern version of meat loaf, made of the sort of odds-and-ends that go into a haggis. They’re chopped fine and usually mixed these days with a bit of rusk to help hold it together. Sliced thin and eaten cold, it’s very satisfying with a pickled onion and a generous helping of home made apple chutney. If I were to go home each Friday without a few slices of haslet, I wouldn’t be let into the house.

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Next, it’s Farmer Sharp for a half-shoulder of mutton. To buy it these days, you usually have to go to a hallal butcher. On a large scale, mutton is available mainly to (as a butcher once told my wife) “the army, schools, hospitals and prisons”. Prince Charles has been doing effective PR on its behalf, and the flavorful stuff is once more becoming available from specialist suppliers.

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There’s the cold case, where it sits waiting for me to give it a happy home.

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Finally, to Booth’s to bick up a celeriac.

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There it is, on the bottom shelf. As a first course before the cassoulet, I serve a remoulade of celeriac, essentially the recipe in Alice Waters’ Vegetable Cookbook.

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And there’s the check-out counter, behind an ever-changing array of wild and tame mushrooms, including the portobello, Ah, there’s a story. I’m told that the name was a PR invention, designed to sell large brown mushrooms for which there had been no market.

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And so, back home on the Northern Line, having successfully resisted a plethora of tempting snacks. When I get home I’ll reward myself with something wicked, thus undoing all my noble self-denial.


Edited by John Whiting (log)

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what a beautiful market- your pictures are make me feel like i was there with you. we lack anything close to that here in jacksonville. i look forward to the rest of this blog.

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Oh dear. This is going to induce a serious case of cassoulet yearning..

If I start the confit this weekend...

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Well, you know I'm a bit embarassed to admit I've never had a cassoulet, so I'll be very content to gaze deeply into the heart of the matter for an entire week.

Thanks!

Zuke

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Blog on, John! Very eager to read the rest of the blog. Do be sure to provide lots of sausage closeups! Meanwhile,

Making cassoulets, like making love, should always contain an element of surprise.

"Honey - no stay still! - have we ever spoken about bean casseroles..?"

There's a joke here about bean surprises while making love, but I'm not gonna make it.

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Well, you know I'm a bit embarassed to admit I've never had a cassoulet, so I'll be very content to gaze deeply into the heart of the matter for an entire week.

Thanks!

Zuke

Wise Mama! Vicarious is best for the waistline!

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I also have to admit to never having cassoulet. I'm looking forward to reading about your adventures.

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John how wonderful to read the beginings of your blog. I have a day off coming this monday and was thinking of what I could do, now I know....I'll be making cassoulet all weekend long!

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And the only cassoulets I have had were in American restaurants, and, frankly, underwhelming, so I'm looking forward to seeing what I anticipate will be an *over*-whelming one. :smile:

As somebody who once spent a lot of summer days vacationing (and eating--gotta keep this on-topic!) in Provincetown, I enjoyed jumping to your website just now and sampling some of your reflections on growing up there. Not to distract from the main theme of your blog, but any asides you might care to throw in here about life and food in Provincetown from the perspective a native would find a very interested audience over here.


Edited by mizducky (log)

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I confess to never have enjoyed cassoulet either. Will you save me a bowl? I look forward to learning more about it (in today's grey, cool weather, a hot, steaming bowl of beans and pork sounds delightful).

What a beautiful marketplace!

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I am admiring all that goose fat. Is this a seasonal offering or do they have it all the time? And I am assuming they have similar buckets of duck fat...yes?

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Good work, John. Making a cassoulet is right up there on my list of top dishes to attempt (I just need to rope in a few hearty-appetited types to assist with its disposal) so I look forward to the rest of your foodblog.

I'm also a big fan of Sillfield Farm produce. Last I heard, they were planning to open a shop in Windermere - if it's up and running in Feb I'll be in there for lots of pig when I'm down in Cumbria next.

Farmer Sharp's mutton is A1 as well.

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What a great blog already, and you haven't yet started cooking! I'vespent a lot of time in London, so I'm also feeling a little homesick - your photos are great - looking forward to more!

I've also never had cassoulet, so be careful with all us virgins....

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John, as you know, I've enjoyed your posts for a long time. I look forward to the rest of this blog with pleasure. If I don't end up participating much, it will be because I get absorbed with that odd thing called "real life," which caught up with me the last few weeks...

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After pursuing culinary authenticity assiduously for years with a religious zeal, I’ve come to take a fairly relaxed view of it. This is partly the result of a paper I wrote for the Oxford Food Symposium this year; after I’d finished it, I changed the title to Authentic? or just expensive?

Where cassoulet is concerned, I’ve had some differences with Charles Shere of Chez Panisse—not arguments, really, for our friendship goes back forty years to when we were both working at KPFA in Berkeley—but rather an agreement to disagree. As a council of perfection, Charles’ and Lindsey’s recipe is the pinnacle. It takes up four pages in The Open Hand Celebration Cookbook and consumes generous hunks of the better part of a week to bring it to fruition. It starts with making the confit, then the stock, then a pork ragoût, then soaking and cooking the beans, and finally the assembly and baking of the cassoulet the day before it is to be served. (Like so many of the finer things in life, it is better warmed over.)

It’s a wonderful recipe with a wonderful end product, but I’ve simplified and deconstructed it in certain respects and added another element from the recipe I used to follow, that in Richard Olney's French Menu Cookbook. The lamb stew which he incorporates is exquisite in itself, and when it’s made with mutton, slow-simmered for several hours, it takes on heavenly dimensions. Details later.

First, the confit. Its origins lie in two historical factors: (1) the raw material from which it was made and (2) the method of its preservation. First, the meat of the geese or ducks that are force-fed to produce foie gras has a coarseness that does not take kindly to roasting or braising; it requires a rather more assertive treatment to tame it. Second, the production of foie gras at the height of the season produced such a massive by-product of left-over flesh that in pre-freezer days it had to be salted down or thrown away.

I love confit, but I also want to keep my salt intake within reason. These days, confit is not made so much for purposes of preservation as to meet a traditional demand. Ironically, many of the birds that are so preserved were not raised for foie gras, and so have a delicacy of flavor that fades under the violence of salting and preserving.

My own solution, for economy as well as aesthetics, is to collect and freeze duck legs that have reached their sell-by date at our local Waitrose and have been reduced. Then, at the beginning of cassoulet count-down, I thaw them and roast them slowly, covered, in the oven. I separate the fat and juices, remove the meat from the bones and cut it into bite-sized chunks. The bones then go towards making the large quantities of necessary stock. Containers start to accumulate in the freezer that will come out on Friday for the Saturday assembly.

Does the slow-roasted duck meat taste as good as confit? Is there a noticeable difference in the final cassoulet? A few years ago I asked Paula Wolfert what she thought and her off-the-cuff opinion at that moment was that the confit would need around six months maturation before it made much difference.

Please note that I’m not attempting to tie Paula to something she once said in idle conversation, or to establish a right and a wrong method of making a cassoulet, but am simply exploring alternatives that work to my own satisfaction. The same with the sausages. Some perfectly respectable recipes state that they should be parboiled; I prefer the taste of roasted sausage, so I cook them on a rack in a covered pan with a bit of water, in a medium oven for about an hour, taking them out when an insertion thermometer tells me they’re safely done—over 70ºC. They won’t be very brown, but they’ll be firm enough to cut into 1” lengths and store ‘til the fateful day.

The juices from the sausages then go into our big pressure cooker to steam-braise the pig’s feet. (This is one of the most essential pieces of equipment in our kitchen.)

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Some recipes instruct that the feet should be split and cooked with the beans, but I have two objections. First, splitting produces bone splinters that take forever to remove; if they are cooked whole, any tiny bones you miss will be little round pellets, not life-threatening fragments. Second, I like the cartilage cooked well down so that it serves to thicken the cassoulet to an oleaginous unctuousness. (Say that slowly three times and your mouth will begin to feel as if you’ve already taken the first bite.) That takes up to two hours in the pressure cooker; by that time the beans would be reduced to a puree.

You can see already that I like to follow a cassoulet recipe that gives me maximum control over each ingredient and maximum flexibility as to timing--they ultimately cook so long together that there's no problem integrating the flavors. I make a ratatouille the same way, partially cooking each vegetable to its own schedule and then combining them for the final stage. It’s obvious that I’m not a chef with a restaurant’s demands for efficiency and last-minute completion, and that I have all the time in the world. For all I care, the Chopin minute waltz could last an hour.

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I am admiring all that goose fat.  Is this a seasonal offering or do they have it all the time?  And I am assuming they have similar buckets of duck fat...yes?

I haven't noticed any of their products disappearing in off seasons. As for duck fat, I haven't seen anyone offering it for sale. The costs are largely those of packaging and transportation, and the more prestigious goose fat is what most of the punters are prepared to pay for.

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