Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Many dishes in the Mediterranean have apocrypha associated with their origin that I find charming. It makes the eating of these dishes all the better. One typical phenotype is the “besieged castle” origination. Cassoulet fits that bill. Cassoulet is a bean stew cooked in an earthenware casserole, hence the name, both words deriving from the same root. It is one of the classic dishes of the Languedoc, and of France. This famous bean stew—and “bean stew” hardly conveys the complexity of its flavors—is subject to much debate about what constitutes a “true” cassoulet. Cassoulet is a paradigm for a culinary understanding of the Languedoc, for there is a different recipe in every kitchen.

The history of cassoulet is a history of Languedoc. One legend places the birth of cassoulet during the siege of Castelnaudary by the Black Prince, Edward the Prince of Wales, in 1355. The besieged townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron. Apocrypha aside, a more appropriate historical question can be asked: Is the prototype of cassoulet the fava and mutton stews of the Arabs, as suggested by Julia Child and Paula Wolfert (but denied by Waverly Root)? Was the Languedoc the northern limit of the cooks, if not the commandos, of 'Abd ar-Raḥmān I and the yakhna bi’l-fūl (fava bean stew? Etymology alone provides some circumstantial evidence pointing to the celebrated cuisine of the Arabs as the provenance of cassoulet, already having made its mark on the beans stews to the south in Muslim Spain.

The word cassoulet derives from the earthenware pot it is cooked in, the cassolle or cassolo, a special vessel made by the local potteries from the terre d’Issel, Issel being a village near Castelnaudary. The word cassolo comes directly from the Spanish. But where does the Spanish word cassa, meaning “a receptacle for carrying liquid,” from which it derives come from? Possibly it is the Mozarab word cacherulo, derived from the Arabic qas'at, a large shallow bowl or pan, or it may be derived from a proto-Hispanic word.

This is the perfect time of year for cassoulet, as rib-sticking a meal as you’ll ever have. It’s heavy so best had around 4 in the afternoon on a cold Sunday. You’ll want to make only the most authentic cassoulet so follow my recipe.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mediterranean Soups with History

Many dishes in the Mediterranean have colorful stories concerning their origins. Most of these are apocryphal but nevertheless amusing. One such soup is zuppa Pavese. An important moment in food history was the great battle at Pavia in northern Italy in 1525 between Charles V of Spain (1500--1558) and the defeated King Francis I of France (1494--1547). The French historian Fernand Braudel suggested that the Battle of Pavia, besides being a triumph of the harquebusiers, was also the triumph of empty stomachs because Francis’s army was too well fed, while the Spaniards and Lombards he fought could make do with a simple broth. Legend has it that Francis, before his capture, took refuge in a nearby farmhouse after the battle. The embarrassed, yet deeply honored, housewife was preparing some soup. She had to turn her humble soup into a soup fit for a king, so she fried some stale bread, put it into the soup, and cracked in two newly laid eggs and ladled some boiling broth over the eggs. The whites curdled gently and the yolks remained soft. She served it with grana padano cheese and the king approved, asking that the recipe be given to one of his servants. And so was born zuppa pavese, the famous egg-drop soup from Pavia. The crucial element to this soup is the broth and the eggs. The broth should be clear, flavorful, and homemade. The eggs must be at room temperature.

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 slices French or Italian bread with crust
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (preferably, imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese)
1 1/2 quarts Rich Veal Broth (see variation here)
4 small or medium eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F and warm four ovenproof soup bowls for at least 30 minutes.
2. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat, then cook the bread on both sides until golden, making sure you do not blacken the edges. Place a slice of bread in each bowl. Sprinkle a tablespoon of Parmesan on each slice of bread.
3. In a pot, bring the broth to a rolling boil over high heat. Without breaking the yolk, crack 1 egg onto each slice of bread and carefully ladle or pour the boiling broth over the egg until the bowl is filled. Sprinkle with parsley and a pinch of white pepper and serve immediately. Add more Parmesan at the table if desired.
Note: The broth must be boiling furiously before you pour it into the bowls, so the eggs, which are small or medium and not large, can cook a bit.
Makes 4 servings

Zuppa Pavese and many more soups are found in THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD