There is little better on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter than a hearty bowl of stew, and the version perfected in France, the Cassoulet, raises the concept to an art form. While there is no standard recipe, ingredients usually lean heavily on meats such as lamb and pork, slow-cooked in a savory mélange, and beans are essentially mandatory. At a previous cook-off one attendee remarked that he didn’t like beans – to which I retorted “going to a cassoulet tasting and not liking beans is like going to Bill Cosby’s house and not liking roofies.”
Given a chef’s freedom to experiment in preparing a cassoulet, it’s altogether fitting that an event allowing one to sample different versions should be hosted in a restaurant noted for hearty fare, and so it was on Sunday, January 10th that the 8th Annual Cassoulet Cook-off was staged at Jimmy’s No. 43, located at 43 East 7th Street in the East Village. Eight competitors presented their work in the side room, while there were some ‘out-of-competition’ varieties available from the kitchen of Jimmy’s No. 43 on the bar of the main room.
The first I tasted was Big Rick’s Old School Cassoulet, put forth by Rick Simmons. It featured Creamy chicken, white beans, carrots, sausages, ham hocks, cognac and jasmine rice. Next was Alana Szemer’s Hunter’s Cassoulet, which hewed to a recipe most reminiscent of France; it contained duck and rabbit leg confit, hunter’s sausage, tarbais beans, and some white wine to make for a delicious and lightly spicy dish with an appealing crust. Then I tried a ‘Pork Lover’s Cassoulet’, which fulfilled promise with ingredients including bacon, pork shoulder, pork sausage, garlic and northern white beans; it was on the mild side. One of my favorites was Linda Mangula’s ‘A Rustic Cassoulet’, which blended savory white beans, duck confit, pan-fried chopped duck with bacon, duck sausage links, braised pork chops with pancetta and Linda’s own Garlic pork sausage, cooked together in a hearty slow-simmered broth with a buttered breadcrumb garlic and parsley topping.
After that I tried the Spanish Cassoulet, prepared with white beans, smoked paprika braised chicken, peppery pork and lamb cubes and Spanish chorizo, in a country broth. Peter Kim’s ‘sassy’ East Village Cassoulet had a bright flavor, due to the addition of orange zest, which complemented the Ukrainian kielbasa, chicken confit, lamb shoulder, pork belly topped with an onion bagel and chicharron. Lynn Ripley’s Cassoulet From Marrakesh featured Moroccan flavors, including salted pork shoulder braised with oranges, cinnamon, figs and onion in a homemade chicken broth, grilled homemade merguez sausage (made with lamb and pork fat with Moroccan spices and harissa), dried cannellini beans cooked in homemade vegetable broth with dried apricots, dried garbanzo beans cooked in vegetable broth with dried plums, and fava beans, all flavored to taste with pomegranate, sumac, olives and topped with freekeh, parsley and homemade preserved citrus. The Chez Pixie Cassoulet, prepared by Pixie Yates with meats from Hudson & Charles, was a rich mixture of ham hocks, pancetta, duck confit, homemade special Toulouse sausage, and pigs trotters, topped off with hot bread kitchen rye crunchies, made with grindstone rye, New York rye and caraway.
Though everyone in attendance won the rewards of tasting so many flavorful dishes, there were also prizes awarded in four judges’ categories and 3 places for people’s choice awards. The Judges winners were: Best In Show – Pixie Yates, with Hudson & Charles; Best Narrative – Peter Kim of MOFAD (Museum of Food & Drink) for his East Village Cassoulet; Best Traditional – Alana Szemer for her Hunter’s Cassoulet; Honorable Mention for Creativity – Lynn Ripley for her Moroccan Marrakesh Cassoulet. In the people’s choice arena Alana Szemer took top honors, second place went to Linda Mungula, and placing third was Rick Simmons.