October 04, 2007

Cassoulet- Part #2- Tarbais Beans

Bean there, done that...

I am not going to brag, much, but Sue Kelley and I grew these sweet Tarbais beans this summer in the much maligned potager at Camont. We got just enough of a harvest for perhaps two medium size cassoulets, one for now to share with you all, and one for later this winter when the Garonne River Valley damp has seeped into every pore of the stone walls.

We caught these beans as they were drying on the vine twisting around the hazelnut stakes we tepee-d together. After a morning of weeding and starting to put the garden to bed, we sat and shucked. Beans freshly picked like this and before they are dry enough for storing can be popped into a freezer for no-soak cooking later. Tarbais grow as pole beans and traditionally were planted at the base of corn. Think of a Gascon 'three sisters'- corn, beans and French pumpkins. This was a test harvest and it seems that beans take to the heavy clay river bottom soil of this Potager, so spring '08 we'll plant a bumper crop of cassoulet-style beans.

Sue harvesting Tarbais

This is where the Cassoulet wars always start- the bean. It is all about the bean. After all Cassoulet is just a bean-based dish, plain and simple. Wonderful, onctuous, filling, and convivial beans. When considering the steps to take to make a decent cassoulet, please consider first, the bean. You can scrimp on the confit, swap sausage for sausage, add or not tomato or other 'trucs', but please don't ignore the prime ingredient- B. E. A. N. Beans cooked very slowly, with judicious seasoning- like a good soup (carrot, onion, bay, thyme, garlic) and a handful of savory and salted meat added is all that's needed to produce a good cassoulet. Stretched by a few leftovers bits of confit (duck, pork, whatever!) plus a sausage or two for the family table, cassoulet is the food of family gatherings, winter nights, and lively conversation.

Tarbais are now 'designer beans' and sell for a premium price of around 9 Euros a kilo. Not widely available even here (a few old guys grow them and sell at the Agen market), most home cooks in this area usually use the plump-as-a-little-pillows 'coco' widely available in their pods at a shuck it yourself price of just 3 Euros and 80 centimes. Per Kilo.

"Lingots" are another cassoulet bean favored by commercial sources and are widely available dried or already cooked. This jar of cassoulet came with "magret d'oie" or goose breast meat as well as a few sausages tucked in the bottom of the jar I bought at the supermarket. French fast food. But as you can see, it's lovely bean that will hold its shape yet melts in your mouth.

Choose your bean for texture- creamy, thin skin and flavorful, and size- and they should be large enough to stand up to bites of sausage or chunks of duck. Buy fresh in season or dried from good sources; an eight year old bean doesn't taste like much. And don't get lost in how strange, complicated and time consuming a cassoulet sounds. Learn to cook your beans well and the rest will fall in place. Ste. Paula (Wolfert) gives a fine account of tracking down THE Cassoulet in her essential "The Cooking of Southwest France". Having had the pleasure of eating in Daguin's kitchen for many years, her description of the famous Fava bean cassoulet made me smile remembering those meaty fresh favas, peeled and stewed with nutty duck confit. A thoroughly Gascon solution to winning any cassoulet concours hands down.

So choose your beans wisely.


Anonymous said...

Nice post--I asked my sister to ship me Tarbais beans from Paris for my cassoulet a few years ago. I couldn't source any locally. It turned out a bit too liquid, but good anyway. Need to try your recipe this winter...


David said...

Haricots Tarbais for 9 euros a kg? That's about half the price of Paris. And to be honest, whenever I've bought them, they seem stale and over-dried out and not worth the cost.

Have been dying to try the version with fresh favas. Let's make a date for next spring!

Kate Hill said...

David, you're on! and Ian start saving your pennies and join us for a spring roundup of fresh fava recipes.
Dried favas are used here to make a very 'serious' winter soup with cabbage, turnips and carrots. The dark brown favas tint the soup and a sort of stuffed omelette is poached on top. I suspect it was the dried fava that served as a cassoulet...oops sounds like a new post.:)

L Vanel said...

J'adore. I know, I was scratching the healing skin of my derriere as I read Kate's post, thinking it's just not fair. However there is a silver lining to this, the man who sold me my beans said he'd be happy to come for dinner. So I think I might invite him. Kate style.