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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Underground Cassoulet Parties

I'm not sure that this has quite risen to the status of a widespread trend, but it ought to...

A year ago I managed to wangle an invite to an annual tradition maintained by a couple of Francophiles here in Philly. Each winter, they'd invite friends over to share a few pots of traditional French Cassoulet, built partly on authentic ingredients smuggled back from trips to France. The requisite Tarbais beans are hard to find around here, as are various components of accompanying dishes. But the magic comes not from clandestine ingredients, but from the love and skill of the chefs/hosts, who've perfected the ideal cold-weather dish.

So I was thrilled to be invited back this year, and this time the attendees pitched-in a bit more, bringing a prepared dish, or bread, or greens for the salad, or cheese, or dessert. I think everyone brought wine, and we drank most of it... We even deviated a bit from the theme of country French food, but everything we had was so good, nobody seemed to care.

The ranks swelled past 20 this year, requiring the addition of some satellite tables and borrowed chairs, so I'm not sure I can give readers too much hope of joining-in next year, but you never know... or better yet, use this as an inspiration to start your own secret cassoulet party, soon it could indeed be a burgeoning fad!

As we were arriving we nibbled on Indian crunchies called Sarya:

Andrew made Duck Prosciutto, which was so good that we don't believe him when he says it was pretty simple.

Sam made Blini, which we weren't exactly sure what to do with, I think one of us was going to bring caviar... maybe it was me... yikes! But they were pretty good under a piece of duck prosciutto, or dipped in some baba ghanoush.

There was a little confusion about bread.

Pedro had already volunteered to bring Sarcone's, but as much as I love that bread, I felt an overwhelming need for something a little more Gallic. Plus we had 20 people, we'd need a lot of bread. I think between the two of us, we over-did it.

I figured I'd use this as an excuse to make a field trip up to Souderton to check out a bakery I'd heard good things about. So I got 6 baguettes and a couple of Epis from Bakers on Broad.

The bread was pretty good, but I'm not sure I liked it enough to justify the drive all the way out there. I actually enjoyed the croissant and the olive roll that I got quite a lot, so maybe I'm just not completely blown-away by the baguettes. They're not bad, but I think I still prefer Artisan Boulanger Patissier down at 12th and Passayunk.

Speaking of South Philly, the Sarcone's bread was fantastic.

We made another little cultural detour before plunging into the cassoulet. Percy had volunteered to bring a traditional Parsi dish, consisting of fish steamed with herbs in a banana leaf.

We have learned to never turn down Percy's cooking if he's doing Parsi specialties. Actually, it doesn't really matter what he's cooking, we never refuse Percy's food. This was so ridiculously delicious that we don't believe him when he says it's pretty simple.

So, you know the routine? If Percy offers to cook for you, don't ask questions, just say yes.

And then, at last, the main event: Cassoulet! I don't think chef Sam made any claims of this being simple, we know it takes several days and many steps to prepare the multiple types of beans, the pork bellies, the lamb shanks, the various sausages, and 18 (!) duck legs, cured and preserved in classic confit style. Finally, everything is carefully assembled, then baked in two huge Le Creuset "French Ovens." And we sincerely thank him for the effort, it was warming, comforting, delicious food done perfectly. The beans were tender but not mushy, the meats tender too, and rich without being fatty. Each element had a characteristic flavor, yet all had baked together, each essence amplifying the other.

Earlier in the evening, when we first arrived, it smelled amazing, I'm surprised there weren't passers-by banging on the doors, begging for a plate of whatever it was they were smelling. Inside, it was even better.

After all that richness, a salad was just the thing. Dave brought some pristine frisée, which Sam dosed with a light dressing: mostly good walnut oil and a little mustard.

We were all pretty insanely stuffed by this time, but there is a second main even at these dinners: Sam's Tarte Tatin:

Well, to be accurate, there were three of them, but shockingly enough, we only made it through two.

I have no doubt that there's more in his repertoire, but the fact that Sam has so thoroughly mastered both cassoulet and tarte tatin is pretty impressive.

So it didn't occur to any of us to refuse, regardless of how full we were. Somehow each of us found room for a slice of this upside-down apple pie. It was worth risking exploding from overeating, the bright apple flavor, accented by just the right amount of caramelization, atop a short pastry crust was just the right ending for this meal.

Oh, right, except we weren't quite done... Karen, Carl and Diann had brought cheese.

A Cheddar-Bleu and Telford Tomme from Hendrick's Farm along with a Comte and Brie from Downtown Cheese were barely touched, but most of us did sample a tiny bit. The unusual cheddar-bleu seemed to be the hit.

Along the way there was a rather scandalous amount of wine consumed, and a few postprandial eaux-de-vie were sampled as well.

So, if you happen to know a couple of Francophiles that have seemed suspiciously over-full lately, you really should try to wangle an invite from them. For thier own protection, I'll refrain from identifying them TOO clearly here! If you happen to be wandering the streets of Philly about this time next year, and smell something amazing wafting from a kitchen exhaust, you might just want to knock on the door, see if you can guess the password to the cassoulet speakeasy.

Or you could just arrange your own, but if you do, word to the wise: keep it secret, or the guest list can get out of hand pretty quickly!

Major thanks to our clandestine hosts, I hope we can do it all again next year!


  1. Dawn Warden4:29 PM

    I know it's a year away, but does offering to do the dishes help in scoring an invite? And, what's the summertime version of this comfort food orgy that I am so bitter to have missed? The Hendrick's Farm cheese for dessert is so deliciously over the top.

    Nice round-up on the sandwich nomenclature. We had this conversation at work just last week. I am from Westchester, NY. The working term there is: wedge.

  2. Dawn - I'm not sure whether the dishwashing offer could secure a place, but I think it's an excellent tactic! We did go through a gazillion wine glasses...

    I'm not sure what the perfect warm-weather equivalent would be, maybe just an over-the-top picnic with good cheese and charcuterie.

    And whatever Percy wants to bring.

    And thanks for the tip about Westchester sandwich nomenclature. I think I've heard that term "wedge" before, but it would definitely elicit some puzzled looks around here!