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Other Writings and Recipes

Embracing the Unknown: Magic in Cassoulet

Vidhi Dattani

A friend told me she made quiche the other day, and that she liked it, but that it lacked for some salt.

I told her that many cooks make the common mistake not to taste their food each step of the way, and till the end.  Too many rest on trust (in a recipe, their intuition, a hunch) that what they cook will turn out tasting just right.

But even when we do taste as we go, there are some dishes that make seasoning not entirely controllable, knowable.  Like quiches, braises, casseroles, soufflés, ice creams, and terrines are examples of items we put together with all the forethought we can, but ultimately finish off with a bit of faith.  These are either dishes that are served whole and intact, making last-minute fixing impossible, or that transform enough in texture and density to make it difficult to tweak to exact taste.

So while I encouraged my friend to taste the raw quiche batter next time before putting it into the shell, I acknowledged that she would not have full control over how it would taste in the end.

Of course, it is the uncontrollable, which keeps cooking exciting, even for the most experienced cooks.  I have made cassoulet around Christmas for years.  It is a great way for me to use up cuts of meat left over from a month of catering holiday parties.   My cassoulet differs from year to year, depending on my stock.  One year, it was duck and white beans.  This year, I added pork, three-ways.

Cassoulet involves preparing all ingredients individually which then bake off all together, slowly, at the end.  Add confit to the process, the project becomes a three day affair with an arsenal of pots.  I know to season each component separately before layering in a dutch oven, but I get no guarantee how it would taste once the extra stock evaporates, the white beans soften further, the sausage cooks through, and the bread crumb crust forms.  It’s a volley each time between seeking perfection and honoring humility, forsaking total control, even after days of effort and expense, for the gift of surprise.

When it’s time to break the cassoulet’s crust, I serve it to my husband first.  He understands by now that I need something beyond, “this is so good” that speaks more to my aim of “yes, you got this one right.”  To be great, a cassoulet needs to taste like a thing unto itself, more than even a perfect sum of its parts.  A great cassoulet has an almost indescribable rightness, a true clarity of form, a transformation of ingredients beyond measure and possibly even expectation.

Delicious reward in the unknowable.  Wise words for a new year.