Beans don’t always get great press, but being my father’s daughter, our kitchen is never without them. Pinto, kidney, cannellini, garbanzo, navy, black, refried and baked beans are stacked two cans high and three deep in the pantry, along with bags of dried beans as well. This Christmas, even more beans were added to our larder. With them came a sense of history and nostalgia.
One of my gifts to Kit was a can of Serious Bean Company Sweet and Sassy Dr. Pepper Baked Beans. Who knew that Dr. Pepper, a drink that I grew up with during my Texas childhood, has long been a secret ingredient among top BBQ Pitmasters? It triggered memories of my father’s love of beans and a recipe for Cowpoke Beans that he sent me decades ago. Now stained and aged to the color of onionskin, it was lovingly typed on a 3×5” index card—ingredients on one side and preparation instructions on the other. A cowboy quote that Dad included spoke to the task ahead. “You’ve got to treat these little pinto beans the same way you would a newborn colt—with a lot of love and attention.”
The second gift—a plenteous box of Napa Valley Rancho Gordo Heirloom Beans— arrived from old friends in Los Angeles. It included: 1 lb. of French-style Green Lentils; 2 lbs. of classic Cassoulet beans (white runner beans grown in CA from original seed stock from Tarbes, France developed by local farmers to be the foundation of the classic cassoulet); White Corn Posole (prepared hominy); 1 lb. Marcella beans (a delicate Cannellini bean grown in CA from Italian ‘Soranao’ seed stock); jars of New Mexico red chili powder and Mexican oregano; and 1 lb. of Super Lucky 2020 Black Eyed Peas.
On New Year’s Day, I made a pot of Rancho Gordo Black-Eyed Pea Stew. Their simple recipe reminded me that Southerners eat these little peas New Year’s Day with cornbread and collard greens to ensure good luck in the coming year. Next, with luck, I’ll prepare a classic French cassoulet—an ambitious dish steeped in history.
Cassoulet is a traditional French dish that goes back to the sixteenth century and Henry IV who saw chickens as a symbol of prosperity in France. According to Lydie Marshall in “A Passion for My Provence: Home Cooking from the South of France,” the king decreed that every French household should have a chicken cooking in a pot every Sunday.
Julia Child, co-author of the classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” found cassoulet “a rich combination of beans baked with meats (pork, lamb, and homemade sausage), as much a part of southwestern France as Boston baked beans are of New England.”
Richard Olney—an American culinary writer who lived in Paris for ten years, then moved permanently to Provence after falling in love with its light, its landscape and its scents—believed there were as many cassoulets as there are cooks. In “The French Menu Cookbook, Olney defined the dish as “a slow-cooked gratin made up of two or more separate preparations, one of which is always pork and bean stew, the others of which may be chosen among preserved duck or goose, braised lamb or mutton, and roast or braised partridge.”
To Georgeanne Brennan in “Savoring France,” cassoulet is a defining dish in the Languedoc region of Provence, stretching from the cities of Toulouse, to Carcassonne, to Castelnaudary. She writes, “While each city, village and family there may have its own version of the dish, it is, in essence layers of white beans that have been slowly cooked with herbs, and interspersed with layers of different cooked meats, thoroughly moistened with the cooking juices of both, topped with a final layer of bread crumbs, and then baked until a thick crust forms and the juices begin to bubble underneath.”
Goose and duck won’t ever end up in my cassoulet pot (because I raised both at Breakfast Creek and named all my favorites). Chicken, pork, and sausage will do. Chefs agree that cassoulet is time-consuming and requires hearty eaters. So, I’m happy to begin the year 2020 with a classic French cassoulet shared with good friends some cold January Sunday here at Boomerang Creek.
By: Cathy Salter
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.