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Cassoulet has its day

The Baltimore Sun

I was surprised by the number of people, a little more than 100, who had gathered to eat cassoulet.

Cassoulet, a slow-cooked French stew, is not trendy or light. It is ancient fare and full of beans. Legend says it was created by starving peasants in southwestern France as a way to overcome the siege of the English during the Hundred Years' War.

Yet on a recent Saturday night, nine cooks had gone to the considerable trouble of making cassoulets, and a crowd of eaters was milling about the backyard of the Guilford home of Dick and Leslie Leitch, sampling the goods, then voting for favorites.

This was my introduction to the cassoulet cook-off, a culinary competition that began about eight years ago as a rivalry between Dick Leitch and Len Homer.

At the start of the competition, the men lived in Federal Hill. They and their families had tasted the dish during visits to France. Both men had tried to replicate the dish in Baltimore. "We would get in an argument over whose was better," Homer said.

A cook-off was organized and judges from the neighborhood were shanghaied, but the verdict was regularly disputed by the loser. So each year, there would be another contest. Gradually, new competitors entered and the event became a party. It moved when the Leitches did, from Federal Hill to Guilford. Over time, judges were discarded and a vote of the eaters determined the winners.

The other night, when the stews had been tasted and the votes tallied, Homer was declared the top finisher. Second place went to Gerard Billebault, an owner and pastry chef of Brassiere Tatin, a French restaurant in North Baltimore. Third-place honors went to Jennifer Thompson, who said this was the first cassoulet she had ever attempted.

Dick Leitch, who had won last year's contest, was able to exact some payback. Two days after the recent cook-off, he was in downtown Baltimore exercising at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center, to mitigate the effects of a stroke he had suffered in November. After the exercise session, he dropped by Homer's Federal Hill home and polished off the rest of the winning cassoulet. In this case, the loser got the spoils.

There is, I learned, a lot riding on the beans used in a cassoulet. The white beans, which are in the classic version from the Lauragais section of Languedoc in France, have to be soaked overnight before they are cooked. "They should be moist but not mushy, firm but not dry, well separated from one another but flavorfully blended with all the other ingredients," a cassoulet correspondent wrote in 1992 in The New York Times. "If they fall short of these requirements, the cassoulet is not a success."

In addition to the beans, other common cassoulet ingredients are sausages and a variety of meats.

The meats require cooking and boning before they go in the cassoulet. In some recipes, such as Homer's, one of the ingredients is duck confit, duck cooked in its fat. That takes days to prepare. Then, too, some cooks let the cassoulet "rest" in the refrigerator for a day or two before cooking. When the time is deemed right, the cassoulet is baked. Some cooks put a bread-crumb crust on their cassoulets; some don't, relying instead on the starch of the beans to form the crust.

(At my request, Homer sent me his recipe. Homer is a semiretired attorney for Ober Kaler law firm, and his four-page recipe is as thorough and as detailed as a legal brief. I thought of testing the recipe, but got tired just reading it. If you wish to have a copy, send me an e-mail at the address at the beginning of this column.)

Most of the cook-off competitors told me they had begun preparations on Tuesday for a dish that would be ready by Saturday night.

Before they fired up their ovens, the cooks had to fetch ingredients, and several went to considerable lengths to get the goods. One of the contestants, Jack Rubin, searched the city looking for fresh pork skin and pork fat for his cassoulet. He found them at a Mars supermarket on Liberty Road.

The duck that Homer used in his recipe was shipped from Hudson Valley Foie Gras, based in Ferndale, N.Y. The garlic sausage came from D'Artagnan, a French food supplier in Newark, N.J. And the Tarbais beans he used came from France. He carried them with him across the Atlantic when he returned on a plane from a trip abroad.

Billebault said that when a cassoulet is prepared in his native country, France, it is often more substantial than fancy. "It is a family dish, or years ago something you would feed the men who worked in the fields," he said.

Yet when he and his wife, Gayle Brier, made what turned out to be their prize-winning cassoulet for the cook-off, they couldn't resist adding some truffle oil.

Thompson, the novice cassoulet cooker, said spontaneity was the secret of her prized cassoulet. She decided to soak the cassoulet's kielbasa sausages in beer. "It was a dark beer," she told me. "I just grabbed something from the fridge."

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