Photograph courtesy of Craig Cutler
Most French standards never leave the bistro—not without a Nip/Tuck-worthy makeover, at least. So in a world of green-tea crème brlée, cassoulet is remarkable. The meat-and-bean-packed casserole from southwest France is cropping up on modern menus around the country, and the chefs behind it are embracing the well-worn original recipe—updating only the bean of choice and occasionally tossing in a vegetable or two. Of course, these virtuosos aren't resting on their laurels: They're drying beans themselves and making sausages for a dish that's as delicious in their four-star settings as it ever was in a chateau. JJ Goode
WHERE TO EAT THE BEST VERSIONS
New Orleans: Luke
John Besh's cassoulet is about cramming as much meaty flavor into a pot as possible. He simmers great northern beans with bacon and ham hocks, adds duck stock, and then finishes the dish with duck confit and garlic sausage.
333 Saint Charles Avenue, 504-378-2840
New York City: Inside Park at St. Bart's
Every component of Matt Weingarten's cassoulet is crafted in-house. He dries local Tarbais beans, grinds Toulouse-style sausage, smokes ham hocks, and braises lamb shoulder rubbed with fennel and lemon peel before roasting his creation in a wood oven.
109 East 50th Street, 212-593-3333
Noah Elsass crumbles homemade harissa-fueled merguez sausage—which brings spiciness to the mix—into silky flageolet beans. Fat-happy pork belly and duck confit add just the right amount of excess.
838 Beacon Street, 617-421-1910
San Diego: 1500 Ocean
Instead of baking his cassoulet's ingredients in one pot, Brian Sinnott waits until after he's cooked the cranberry beans, sausage, and kale to add the duck confit, which ensures that the skin stays super-crispy.
1500 Orange Avenue, 619-522-8490
Chef Michelle Bernstein's version pairs crispy sweetbreads (another French favorite) with winter vegetables
like parsnips and pumpkin. But the traditional heartiness remains, thanks to duck sausage and melted foie gras.
6927 Biscayne Boulevard, 305-759-2001
THE RICH ORIGINS
The least-dainty export from the land of Bordeaux gets its name from the earthenware dish it's traditionally slow-cooked in, called a cassole, which is typically big enough to serve a family, if not a town. And like most other age-old specialties, the cement-thick bean stew has slight regional variations—in Castelnaudary, where the recipe was supposedly invented during the mid-14th century, cooks limit themselves to various pork products, while in Toulouse they favor a combination of pork, mutton, and duck. Though the debate over meats may rage on, the emphasis (and consensus) is on the beans: They should be cooked to that ephemeral state of creaminess that comes just before mushiness—a holy grail that only a master can attain.