Obsessed with Cassoulet

We rented a house in Saverdun, a tiny little town less than an hour from Toulouse.  In the distance were the Pyrenees, and all around were these rolling hills like you see in picture books and fairy tales.  There were great stone chateaux perched on the hillsides (“Chateau alert!” we would cry to each other in the car).  And sunflower fields, where the flowers wore yellow bonnets, and stared primly down at the ground in their shyness.  It was beautiful countryside, and somewhere amidst it all, I decided to eat like a pig.  In fact, it was mostly pig that I ate.

If I could swear myself to one French dish for the rest of my life, exclusively, it would be cassoulet.  In fact, I had never before in my life tasted cassoulet.  I was a cassoulet virgin.  I thought cassoulet came from Toulouse, but my stepfather gasped and said, “No!  It is from Castelnaudary!”  The French are proud of the provenance of these things.  What is it?  Big white beans baked in broth with pork fat, pork confit, sometime duck or goose confit, and garlicky Toulouse sausages.  The meat falls of the both, and pulls apart.  The beans are soft and filling and so good and comforting.  The fat is, well, fattening, but it so much flavor and crispiness to everything.  It is so good, so hearty, so almost medieval that I could not get enough of it.  I was in Saverdun maybe 10 days–and I ate cassoulet five times.  It’s a miracle I ate anything else!

My Cassoulets

Mirepoix

Mirepoix Cassoulet

Cassoulet in Mirepoix

The first night we arrived in Saverdun, we drove to the little medieval square village of Mirepoix.  It’s a town that always seems to have a carnival and market reveling in its main square–very charming.  We sat down at this touristy little café terrasse on the main market square, and while my family set about ordering salads, I ordered, what else, the cassoulet.  I had been anticipating this moment since my mom said–I think we’ll go to Toulouse this summer.  Want to come?  I knew the moment of cassoulet would come–and here it is.  Another French classic to add to my collection.

I am sure it was from a can or a jar.  This was not the kind of place that was making its own confit–I would be surprised if they even had a real oven.  But no matter.  It was intensely smoky–the smokiest one I had.  With confit of pork, Toulouse sausages, and beans in a loose broth.  The others I had later were crisped on top, and less smoky.  These one was very casual.  But I still loved it.  I used bread to scrape whatever broth was left into my mouth.  And the pork confit fell off the bone.  I can’t tell you the name of the restaurant, because honest to truth, I don’t even know if it has one.  But it has a big green canopy, on the main square in Mirepoix, should you happen to be there.  It’s convivial, with slow service, and a fine cassoulet.

Castelnaudary: Trip 1

Hotel du Centre Cassoulet Castelnaudary

The Cassoulet at Hôtel du Centre in Castelnaudary

Hotel du Centre Cassoulet PortionWhen M. Français, my stepfather, told me Castelnaudary was the place for cassoulet, I knew it no uncertain terms that I was going to Castelnaudary.  The first time we were there was by chance, and I hadn’t had time to research the best cassoulet destination (this is what I do in my free time!).  I felt drastically underprepared as we drove into the village, and I have to tell you, the village took my by surprise.  Could this place really be the birthplace of cassoulet?  There was no one about, the main street was quaint, because it was old and French, but not strongly so.  I was, to be honest, disappointed.  We found the place we thought looked nicest on the main drag, and went in.  Others ordered fish; I ordered cassoulet (you’ll begin to see a pattern!).  This was the best cassoulet I had on my trip.  It had both duck confit and pork confit that fell off the bone.  It was enormous, and came with a green salad (an accoutrement that I HIGHLY recommend against the heaviness of cassoulet).  The others dared me to finish it, and…I couldn’t!  So disappointed in myself.  The beans were soft.  The broth was a bit thicker.  And the sausage was either homemade or from a serious purveyor–it crumbled apart like nothing packaged ever cook.  And the top with laced with fat, and crisped to a crunch.  It was amazing.  If you are in Castelnaudary, go to Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais, and get the cassoulet.  The dining room also happens to be beautiful.

Toulouse

Le Colombier Cassoulet Toulouse

The Cassoulet at Le Colombier in Toulouse...It's a looker!

Le Colombier Cassoulet Toulouse PortionEveryone said that Le Colombier had the best cassoulet in Toulouse.  The guidebook said it.  The waiter at Le Colombier said it, except he said it was the best in the whole region.  When Mr. English arrived a few days after the rest of us, I insisted we all go out and fête his arrival with another cassoulet.

I was shaking with anticipation.  A city girl, I have the horrible prejudice that everything is better in the city, Castelnaudary or no Castelnaudary.  It was very good.  I was broiled on the top, large, with a salad and apple tart included in the meal.  The confit was goose, which I’m less keen on.  The beans were every so slightly undercooked.  The sausage was very good.  It was for all intents and purposes, lovely–but it wasn’t Castelnaudary, despite what the waiter said.

Castelnaudary: Trip 2

La Belle Epoque Cassoulet

The Cassoulet at La Belle Epoque

La Belle Epoque Cassoulet PortionArmed this time with information, I trouped the family over to La Belle Epoque, heralded as Castelnaudary’s cassoulet destination.  Would it live up to the hype?  Le Colombier hadn’t quite matched my anticipation, so, I didn’t hold my breath.  The place is adorable.  Family run.  One thing I’ve noted about Castelnaudary is while the streets may seem deserted, the insides of all the restaurants and cafés are lively and convivial and very fun.  The son seated us.  The mother took our order.  Of course, I ordered “Le Menu Touriste”: cassoulet, green salad, and sorbet.  I will say, this almost ties with the Hotel du Centre, in fact, some at the table preferred it.  So, it’s a toss up based on your preference.  It was duck confit, the top nicely crisped, the sausages crumbling, the beans perfect.  They even bought Mr. English and me a couples’ pot–cassoulet for two in a large, hot earthenware casserole.  I lapped up the last drops with bread.

Saverdun

Cassoulet Saverdun

The Cassoulet at La Grande Moungetardo in Saverdun

Saverdun Cassoulet Portion

The steam clouded my lens!

Cassoulet Saverdun Duck Confit

The Duck Confit--I secretly traded a thigh for a leg when no one was looking! Shh!

Saverdun has no restaurants worth eating in–at least, that’s what the locals told me.  But once a year, they have a town even called La Grande Moungetardo.  No clue what it means, but I went, and it was such an affair that it deserves its own post.  But, I will say something about the cassoulet.  It was served banquet style, in huge earthenware pots on the tables, with ladle to scoop out the beans.  The sausage was cut up, uncharacteristically, in the beans, and after a delicious, steaming plateful, I thought, that was good.  They, they put a second round of earthenware pots on the table, and I served myself a second huge plateful, and thought, this is VERY good.  My mom, M. Français, and Mr. English all murmured how it was better than Toulouse.  I felt bad saying it, but maybe it was true.  Then, and only then, when we least expected it, they came around with legs of duck confit.  And then they came around again.  You’ll see when I write the whole thing up–it was among the five best nights of my life!

Here is my conclusion: some cassoulets are better than others.  But from now on, if I go into any restaurant that serves it, I’m ordering it.  It’s like my favorite child.  Better than bouillabaisse, than Bourguignon, than any other classic dish I’ve yet had.  I’m in love, for life.

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Categories: Restaurants, Toulouse, Voyages
 

The Secret Ingredient (Mango Chutney) Part III: “Tandoori” Mango Salmon

RECIPE: "Tandoori" Mango Salmon
"Tandoori" Mango Salmon

"Tandoori" Mango Salmon

Get the whole story on Serious Eats.

What I love about mango chutney, which is made from raw, green mangoes, is its balance of sweet and sour.  It tastes distinctly of both sugar and of vinegar.  I love the way the sweet caramelizes when cooked, and the way the sour cuts through fattiness.  Which makes it the perfect compliment to a simple broiled salmon–caramelized around the edges, with just that point of acidity to balance the salmon’s strong, oily flavor. Continue reading

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Cheap, Easy, Eat, Fish, Main Courses, Recipes, Series, The Secret Ingredient
 

Franglais: Carrot and Celeriac Slaw

RECIPE: Carrot and Celeriac Slaw
Carrot and Celeriac Slaw

Carrot and Celeriac Slaw

Get the whole story at The Huffington Post.

This recipe is a hardcover.  Which sounds a little bit strange without explanation.

A few months ago, I bought a Kindle.  And I buy Kindle books avidly.  But only the ones I want to read once.  The ones I don’t want to see cluttering the sagging shelves in my little apartment.  The ones that are all plot, all blood, all sex, all intrigue—and once the end is neatly tied in a bow, I will sigh, and maybe think a little while longer about it, and then never read it again.

But I still buy hardcovers: books by authors I love, new printings of books I cannot live without.  They are why my shelves are sagging.  Because every reading brings some new pleasure, like meeting an old friend after a time apart, and finding out another totally fantastic thing about them.

Carrot and celeriac slaw is a hardcover.  It’s a cross between the very traditional French céleri rémoulade, and an American cole slaw.  Céleri rémoulade is shredded celery root, or celeriac, tossed in a  mayonnaise-based sauce, usually flavored with a little bit of mustard and acid, like lemon juice or vinegar.  Similar to our American cole slaw, but without the sweetness of carrots or sugar or other sweet things that often find their ways in.  Plus, no need for the traditional celery salt—celeriac has that perfect faint, earthy, celery flavor, and crispy white flesh that doesn’t wilt like cabbage.  I whisk together a simple dressing of good French mayonnaise, spicy Dijon mustard, and cider vinegar.  I toss in the shredded carrot, for that touch of American sweetness, and celery root, for that phenomenal why-don’t-we-eat-more-of-this-in-the-States flavor, and let it wilt, until the vegetables bends a touch, but are still crunchy as a chip.

I’ve been writing these posts from France the last couple of weeks, and I have made this slaw every other day, using the gorgeous pre-shredded carrots and celery root from Carrefour (I’m telling you—they’re really good!), good French mayonnaise, and a Dijon mustard slightly spicier than our usual.  I eat it with lunch and dinner, and leftovers are even better the next day.  Every time I take it off my nearly-sagging refrigerator shelf, I look at it like an old friend, and discover I love it even more than I did yesterday.  Bon app.

Carrot and Celeriac Slaw
serves 4 to 6

Carrot and Celeriac SlawINGREDIENTS

  • 5 tablespoons good mayonnaise
  • 4 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1/2 pound finely shredded carrot
  • 1/2 pound finely shredded celery root

PROCEDURE

In a large bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper.  Toss with the carrots and celery root, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 1 hour, up to overnight.  Serve slightly cold.

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Easy, Eat, Franglais, Recipes, Salad, Series, Sides, Soup & Salad, Vegetables, Vegetarian
 

Loving French Fast Food…and Toilets

Quick Boursin Balls

Cheesy, Herby, Garlicky Boursin Balls at Quick

There’s something to be said for a sit-down meal at a fancy French restaurant.  Now’s not the time to say it.  I’ve been on the road, and I’ve been eating street food.  And it’s the funnest thing about eating in France.

NICE Quick

The Quick at the Nice Airport

Quick Frites

The All-Important Point of Comparison: The Frites at Quick

Quick Frites No Salt

Quick frites are not salted after cooking--an interesting contrast

Quick Fish Sticks

Cheesy Poisson-Shaped Fondue-Stuffed Quick Fish Sticks

In the Nice airport, I went to my first Quick–the French answer to McDonald’s (although, don’t tell anyone I said it that way).  I’m obsessed with eating strange things off of foreign McDonald’s menus, and that’s always kept me busy enough to keep me away from Quick.  But, they are truly the French fast food joint.  We had such oddities as fish-shaped fish sticks filled with cheese fondue.  Actually seriously good.  And Boursin balls–the French answer to the mozzarella stick, made from little rounds of melty garlic and herb cheese, breaded, and fried, in a box.  Those went quickly.  They had beignets, but I didn’t get that far.  Some fries and a side salad topped with shredded beets (only in France), and I was up to my ears in French fast food.

TOULOUSE Hot Dog Cart 1TOULOUSE Hot Dog Cart 2Then, driving around Toulouse, we stopped at a gas station.  I laughed out loud.  Outside of the little mini mart, was a New York style hot dog cart, selling hot dogs in a bun with mustard or pickle relish for 3 whole Euros.  The dogs looked a little gray, but I had to smile at the American bun, the squeezy condiments, the hot dog hot tub, and of course, the signs that read: Manhattan’s Hot-Dog, Hot-Dog New Yorkais.  Being New Yorkaise myself, I ate it up.

Villeroy & Boch Toilet

Unbelievable!

And can I just make one note about bathrooms, which probably shouldn’t be on a food blog: is it only in France where highway rest stops has Villeroy & Boch toilets?!  Roll it up with the Mercedes taxi cabs.  The highways and byways are the real culinary adventure out here!

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French in a Flash: Simple Carrot Salad with Mustard and Walnuts

Carrot Salad

Carrot Salad with Spicy Dijon Mustard and Walnuts

Get the whole story on Serious Eats.

A reader on my blog wrote that her favorite dish in Paris was a simple carrot salad.  And I knew just the kind she was talking about.  In France, they sell pre-shredded carrots in the grocery store, grated so fine it is a kind of carrot floss.  I often see it piled on one side of a salade composée, or served in a small dish.  And I thought, since I am writing this column from France at the moment, it was time to create my own.

A simple dressing of walnut oil, olive oil, hot Dijon mustard, and cider vinegar is light, nutty, and a touch spicy.  I toss the threads of carrot with the dressing and chopped walnuts (French walnuts are amazing), cover it, and let it wilt slightly in the fridge for at least two hours.  Overnight is best.  Then, I serve it, still crunchy, a touch sweet, but also savory, as a slaw with a sandwich, or along with a big salade verte.  Perfectly simple and healthy and delicious.

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Categories: 15 Minutes, Cheap, Easy, Eat, French in a Flash, Recipes, Series, Soup, Soup & Salad, Vegetarian
 

French Finds: Special K, Feuilles de Chocolat Noir

RECIPE: My Must-Have Shopping Stops in France
Special K Feuilles de Chocolat Noir Flakes

A scientific close-up of the best cereal ever.

Eating out in France is definitely something to write home (or blog) about.  But I get even more excited when I’m here about buying “my products”.  That includes orange flower Le Petit Marseillais body wash, spray bottles of organic argon oil, extra fine BIC Cristal pens (really–I bought 30 this week), Monoprix reusable shopping bags (I bought hot pink this week!), Carrefour coolers, and LU Petit Ecolier cookies that I can buy anywhere but only buy when I’m in France, because that’s how I justify the calories.  I have to stop in Princesse tam.tam (best bathing suits ever–Emma Stone is wearing one in Vanity Fair), Petit Bateau (where I get half my striped tees), and Aigle (which I think is fair because they either don’t exist outside of France, or are much cheaper here–I’ve been to all three in Nice and in Aix and Toulouse).  But, I admit, my travel companions may be family, but my French shopping obsessions try their patience, which may be beginning to wear thin.

Special K Feuilles de Chocolat Noir Bag

It's in the bag.

Another thing I MUST GET (I got the extra large box!) is my favorite cereal OF ALL TIME: Special K Feuilles de Chocolat Noir.  Now don’t go rolling your eyes at me that Special K is Special K.  This is different!

Special K Feuille de Chocolat Noir Box

This is the box to find, and buy!

The flakes are different–really multigrain and hearty.  And then there’s the chocolate.  I started eating this cereal I think about 13 years ago, before chocolate became healthy in the States.  I thought it was so cool that you could buy a healthy chocolate cereal.  Feuille de chocolat means “leaves of chocolate,” and it’s like some took a vegetable peeler to a block of good dark chocolate and dropped millions of chocolate curls in among the flakes.  They melt on contact with your tongue.  They are just sweet enough.  I thought when our American Special K Chocolaty Delight came out, it might be a new name for the same thing.  Do NOT be fooled.  Different flakes.  Different chocolate.  On the whole, inferior.  Feuilles de chocolat is where it’s at, and it’s being 8:46 in the morning Toulouse time, I believe I will go pour myself a bowl.

You have to your hands on this stuff!

Note: I just suggested the cereal to Mr. English, and he said “Cereal?!  I can have cereal in London.”  That’s what he thinks.  Let him have his French bread.  Is the word “ignoramus” too harsh?  He approves ignoramus.  More for me!

My Must-Have Shopping Stops in France

Petit Bateau

for striped tees and nightgowns

Princesse tam.tam

for bathing suits and pajamas (the summer sales are killer here)

Aigle

for fashionable rain boots and sportswear

Monoprix

for little household goods, reusable "green" bags in cute pouches, for great pears and eggplant caviar, for my organic argan oil spray bottles

Carrefour

Because it's the Target of French supermarkets.  I buy neon cooler bags, BIC pens, Petit Marseillais body wash, and, of course, my Dark Chocolate Special K.  And a million other things!

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Categories: Côte d'Azur, Finds, Paris, Provence, Voyages
 

Macarons Au Naturale in Aix

AIX Natural Macarons 2

Plain Giant Macarons in Aix

I swear to you, this is going to be the next big thing.  I’ve seen them in Paris in an outdoor market on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, and in Aix-en-Provence at the outdoor market, and in shops.  ”Rustic” macarons.  Not dyed pretty pastel Marie Antoinette colors.  Not flavored with anything obscure.  Just simple, handmade, almondy macarons.  Most are flavored with nothing–just two shells pressed together, tasting slightly of marzipan, a bit chewier than the Ladurée counterpart.  I’ve seen simple, regional flavors like lavender or lemon.  But a few days ago, in Aix, I saw a patisserie taking the rustic macaron to new levels, stuffing the homespun shells with little creams and ganaches, in flavors like pistachio and rose.  My favorite was the chocolate-raspberry, the almond shells spiked with cocoa, stuffed with a very strong, fruity raspberry cream.  But my favorite is still “nature”–or plain.

AIX Natural Macarons 1

The macarons aren't handled with gloves--just kept in candy jars.

Crisp on the outside, and chewy, but substantial within, they taste like sweet almond in a farmhouse way.  I love that something so elevated is getting back to its roots.  I hope these will follow Ladurée over to the states.  As beautiful as the fancy macarons are in their Easter egg hues, so these are beautiful in their simplicity.  As fanciful as the macaron flavors can be, so these are lovely in their unassuming regional best.  They are sort of what we all aspire to with the French–effortless, artful, natural beauty and style.  Looking like there is no diet, no makeup, no effort.  When in reality, there is a master at work.

AIX Natural Macarons 3

On the same subject: Snapshots from the South of France: Rustic Macarons

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Categories: Provence, Restaurants, Voyages