To build a great winter menu around this rich, rustic French stew, start and finish with refreshing salads
by Jean-Pierre Moullé
Cassoulet, the hearty peasant stew from the southwest of France, has long provoked hot debate. Which kind of beans should you use? Should you use duck or goose? There are numerous versions, each with its passionate partisans. But rather than being a pure expression of one style, this cassoulet takes elements from them all: It's a melding of great flavors that come from assembling duck confit, beans, lamb stew, sausage and pork, and cooking them all together, slowly and gently.
Hearty cassoulet is almost a meal in itself, so when creating a menu, you want to keep the starter and dessert light and refreshing, like these simple frisee and fruit salads. The menu does take some advance planning, but there's no elaborate technique required. So, if you stick to a strategy, and use the timetable, it's really easy. And great cassoulet is worth the wait, so it's the perfect thing for a special dinner party on a cold night--New Year's Eve, perhaps?
For the Cassoulet:
Try a hefty red with dark fruit and spice flavors. For the salad, choose a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, whose bright grapefruit and green-herb notes would be great with the zesty flavors of orange and sherry vinaigrette. Try a simple Entre-deux-Mers like Château Bonnet ($9, and made by Jean-Pierre's in-laws), a Sancerre from Rossignol ($16), or Geyser Peak Sauvignon Blanc from Sonoma ($9). To match the cassoulet's intensity, go for a hearty red with plenty of personality, dark fruit flavors, and earthy, spicy notes. The 1999 Le Mistral from Joseph Phelps ($27), a Châteauneuf-du-Pape style blend, would be perfect. Or try a Côtes-du-Rhône Villages (I like Domaine de l'Oratoire St. Martin, $12). For a splurge, try Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, a lush Grenache blend from the Southern Rhone ($38; the 1999 vintage drinks well at this early stage if you decant it). When it comes to dessert, the wine always needs to be as sweet as or sweeter than what's on the plate. Jean-Pierre has wisely chosen a light finish to this meal, so I'd follow his lead with something light in the glass. Pick a wine with crisp acidity, medium sweetness, light body, and little or no oak, like Rivetti "La Spinetta" Moscati d'Asti, a fragrant sparkler from Italy ($16).
Tim Gaiser is a master sommelier and a contributing editor to Fine Cooking.
Photo: France Ruffenach
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