When Plutarch wrote "abstain from beans," he was not offering gastronomic advice but political. Beans were the counters used in casting votes and, if the peasant population of the world had heard the warning, they would have been relieved to know he meant do not meddle in affairs of state.
Relieved because -- then as now -- if the poor of the world had to abstain from beans, they would have to abstain from being. Archeological evidence indicates that the bean was being cultivated as a staple of diet as far back as 9750 B.C.
Even the Senate, whose members indulge both in casting beans and eating them, has a dining room famous for its bean soup.
Ubiquitous, nutritious and bland, the bean has been turned into a variety of hearty and flavorful dishes like Italy's paste e fagiola, Latin America's refried bean, Boston's baked beans, the Middle East's falafel and, most famous and source of the most arguments, France's cassoulet.
The debate centers on which of three variations is the "true" cassoulet, the one from Castelnaudary, the one made in Toulouse, or the one native to Carcassone. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, the first contains haricot beans served with chunks of fresh pork, pork knuckles, ham, pork sausage and fresh pork rind. The second is distinguished by its use of Toulouse sausage and preserved goose or duck and the last by the addition of mutton. Each cassoulet receives a long, slow cooking, with bread crumbs sprinkled on top to form a crusty golden lid that conceals the rich broth bubbling below.
That's the theory. A year and a half ago, two writers from the "International Review of Food and Wine" went to southwest France in search of the traditional cassoulet. What they found is that there is no such thing. As with Irish stew and Texas chili, each chef is convinced that authenticity extends no further than his own stove.
Following is Elizabeth David's recipe for cassoulet, given because, as do all her recipes, it leaves the most room for the chef to experiment:
For a cassoulet to feed 6 to 8 people, soak 1 1/2-2 pounds medium white haricot beans overnight; next day drain, rinse and cook them in fresh water for 2 1/2 hours, keeping them just on the boil until they are three-quarters cooked. Strain them. (Changing the soaking water is supposed to reduce the unfortunate after-effects of beans. As an extra precaution, serve after-dinner charcoal capsules -- available at health food stores -- in lieu of mints.)
Prepare 2 pints of meat stock. Slice 3 onions and cut 1/2 lb. bacon into squares and melt them together in a pan, adding 4 or 5 cloves crushed garlic, 2 tomatoes, and seasoning. Pour on the stock and let simmer for 20 minutes. Take a wing and a leg of preserved goose (see note below), with the lard adhering to it, and put at the bottom of an earthenware pot which has been well rubbed with garlic, along with 1 lb. coarse pork sausage, cut up, and the bacon from the stock pot. Put the beans on top and cover with the prepared stock. Bring the cassoulet to a boil, then spread a layer of breadcrumbs on top and put the pot in a slow oven and leave it until the beans are cooked. This will take about an hour, during which time most of the stock will be absorbed and a crust will have formed on top of the beans.
Ms. David suggests serving the dish with a good, young red wine and following it with a salad and a country cheese.
Note: Half a fresh goose can be used instead of confit d'oie -- preserved goose -- as can duck or turkey. However, confit d'oie is carried by The French Market, 1632 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (338-4828), which both imports tins from France and makes its own. Their confit d'oie (half a goose) sells for $18, the confit de canard, $12, and is frozen after being preserved, probably a necessity in Washington's climate. Alternately, Julia Child offers excellent instructions on putting up your own duck or goose in Julia Child and More Company.