Now We're Cookin'
A cassoulet party warms body and soul
Photos by Wendy Carlson
There’s something especially appealing about a dinner party when it’s cold out. Just ask David Leite, a Portuguese-American food writer whose cassoulet recipe is the perfect comfort food for a gathering of good friends.
Leite, a cookbook author and publisher of the two-time James Beard Award–winning website Leite’s Culinaria, describes the dinner as a simple, casual late-afternoon meal. But, in truth, it is a gastronomic challenge. Leite starts preparing the cassoulet, which is based on a French peasant dish, two weeks before. He begins with 25 pounds of duck necks—a shopping feat in itself. Those he roasts with yellow onions, carrots, and garlic to make a stock. “That’s one long-weekend project,” Leite says.
Then, ten days before the party, Leite prepares the confit. The duck meat is salted and seasoned with freshly ground spices, placed in duck fat and cooked very slowly, then preserved by allowing it to cool in the fat. The day before the party, duck and pork sausage, shredded duck meat, tomato sauce, and beans are evenly placed into gratin dishes, covered with panko-bread crumbs, and cooked very slowly.
Cindi Kruth, a recipe developer from Fairfield, first introduced Leite to a cassoulet recipe after she and her husband, Martin Goldberg, discovered the dish while touring France. The classic French stew is supposed to be made with whatever is around: dried beans, preserved duck and pork, garlic sausage, and slab bacon. “But most people don’t have a pot of duck confit in their refrigerator, so David makes he own,” says Kruth. “Each year he gets better and better at it,” she says.
And, each year the party also gets larger and larger, and continues well into the evening. “It’s become like the Super Bowl for my food-loving friends,” Leite says. The event, as well as the cassoulet recipe, comprises the last chapter of Leite’s forthcoming memoir, Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love, and Manic Depression, to be published by Dey Street Books, a division of Harper Collins, in April.
Leite and his partner, Alan Dunkelberger, a realtor in Manhattan, divide their time between their city apartment and their country colonial in Roxbury. “The house in Roxbury is my asylum,” Leite says. “I have four beautiful acres surrounding me, and it’s where I love to write.”
In addition to writing about food, travel, and cooking, Leite has composed blog posts about his own struggles after being diagnosed as bipolar. Cooking, he has found, often helped him through those rough episodes. “The smell of garlic and onions is very calming, and there’s even something soothing in the simple act of stirring a pot of melting butter,” he says.
The overwhelming response he got from readers about his posts inspired him to write this latest memoir. “Both publicly and privately, people poured out their hearts to me about manic depression in themselves, their families, their friends. I was floored. I didn’t expect this kind of reaction. That’s when I knew I had to write my story, my whole story,” Leite says.
For the past year, he has been writing down memories of growing up in Fall River and, later, Swansea, Massachusetts, in a food-obsessed, immigrant Portuguese family. “And while food is the theme that stitches the narrative together, also woven into that story are two topics that have tortured me most of my life: bipolar disorder and homosexuality,” he says.
Leite was an advertising copywriter in New York before he his love of food led him to become a writer. In 1992, when his grandmother died, he realized that all of the recipes for her dishes went with her. “I got panicky that my mother didn’t write down her versions of the recipes, so I started videotaping my mother and she started to telling me family stories,” he says.
Those interviews led to his first story published in the Chicago Sun-Times; and his experience and love of Portuguese food prompted him to write his first cookbook, The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe’s Western Coast, which won the 2010 Julia Child Award for First Book.
Since then, food has become the language he uses to write about a myriad of different topics, including his own dislike of Portuguese food as a child. “When I was growing up, I wanted to be an American. I didn’t want to eat tripe, salted cod, and octopus, and at age ten I felt it was a personal triumph to be eating TV dinners,” he says.
In the end, his grandmother’s comfort recipes, like her slowly simmered white beans and sausage dish, won over those frozen dinners. In essence, the cassoulet party is a nod to the two women whose recipes and food have warmed his soul, even in the depths of winter.
“Food is such a universal thing,” Leite says. “We all have to eat, and if we can do it in the company of those we love and enjoy being with, then that’s a perfect meal.”