Chow Bella

It's Fall: Pass the Cassoulet

Welcome to "Schaefer," in which Eric Schaefer -- a local guy with a big (but discerning) appetite and a sense of humor to match -- takes on the Phoenix food scene.

Cooler weather is upon us! October is the month during which I check the five different weather apps on my phone, hoping that one of them will indicate a break from the heat in the 10 day forecast. I'm tired of living in shorts and flip-flops, and look for every excuse possible to put on a sweater....even if it means that I might sweat. It's also the month in which I start thinking about a change in my diet, moving from light summer fare to heartier food. And no food says "cooler temperatures" to me like cassoulet.

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Originating from the southern province of Languedoc, cassoulet is a hearty and rich "stew" of white beans and whatever animal the French peasants could slaughter and throw into it. Cooked in a traditional ceramic cassole, it most frequently features duck, garlic sausage and pork. The French have strong opinions about what constitutes an "authentic" cassoulet (generally, I find that the French have strong opinions about everything; one reason why I love all-things-French) but it is generally acknowledged that Toulouse, and several nearby villages, is the source of the most traditional cassoulet.

My love affair with cassoulet began in San Francisco, where it was a staple on the menus of the many French bistros that dotted the city. It was a particularly unhappy time in my life; I had a stressful job in corporate marketing for a technology company, working for an insane tyrant of a CEO. I was miserable, working punishing hours, routinely taking phone calls in the middle of the night, and it was taking a toll on my physical and mental well being. My blood pressure was dangerously high and my spirits were low. With the exception of the food, my time in San Francisco is a time that I mostly choose to forget. But whether at Absinthe, Chapeau!, Boulevard or Baker Street Bistro, the cassoulet in San Francisco always seemed to pair well with the damp, foggy weather. I know little about wine, but always found comfort from a large serving of cassoulet and just about any glass of rich French wine. But since I left San Francisco in 2002, I've been disappointed with every cassoulet that I've been served, bar none.

And that's ironic, because cassoulet isn't supposed to be complicated. It's peasant food. Beans, stock, meat. Bread crumbs are optional, and controversial. If French peasants can do it, can't some of Arizona's best chefs? Apparently not. So, never being afraid of trying to do myself what others can't, I set out years ago to recreate the cassoulet that made me so happy in those years. And I've failed - miserably so - while spending thousands of dollars in the process.

I sourced genuine tarbais beans from France. I ordered duck from New York, and made the confit myself from large quantities of duck fat. I procured the "correct" garlic sausage. I bought the proper earthenware. And tried recipe after recipe, all without success. I resorted to emailing food writer Michael Ruhlman, a friend of Anthony Bourdain's, and he was gracious enough to give me Bourdain's recipe from Les Halles which called for lining the cassole with pig skin. So, I drove well over 100 miles round trip to the Pork Shop in Queen Creek, bought a ten dollar slab of pig skin, and drove home with a smile on my face, certain that this was the missing piece and, this time, I'd get it right. But after three days of cooking and one bite, I knew I failed again. Into the trash it went. And, that time, I spent about $50 in gas driving to Queen Creek. Merde.

So often, the memory of a flavor is burnished into your conscience. You can close your eyes, think of a meal, and be taken back to that very place and the emotions that defined it. That's how it is with me and cassoulet; it takes me back to happy memories in San Francisco, positive moments in time during a phase of my life that really wasn't all that happy. Food has that power. Those memories never fade.

And so I've given up, and that's hard for me to do. I may go back to San Francisco one day and retrace my gastronomic footsteps, but they're not likely to live up to the memory. For me, cassoulet was the perfect amalgam of time and space, emotion and flavor...a pleasurable constant in an unhappy life that was, but is no more.

Meanwhile, the summer swelter continues. My sweaters are still in the other closet, and my electric bill is huge. Cooler weather is coming, but not soon enough. I find myself daydreaming of a hillside in Provence, straight out of a Peter Mayle novel, with the Mistral blowing strong and a batch of cassoulet in the oven. There is a saying, falsely attributed to Mark Twain, which goes "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." Clearly, whoever wrote that never tried the cassoulet.

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Eric Schaefer