The Frenchmen who were among Minnesota's first white settlers must not have been from Carcassonne, Castelnaudary or Toulouse. Otherwise, we'd be eating a lot more cassoulet once winter's chill sets in.

But this hearty, multi-meat stew is making inroads in a region that has no shortage of weather perfect for cassoulets, increasingly enjoyed either at home or at local French restaurants.

"We're Minnesotans, and we like to have that food that sticks to your sides," said Corey Shovein of Burnsville, who started making cassoulet two years ago and just purchased a big stoneware pot resembling the medieval earthenware cassoles that gave the dish its name.

The offerings could be "original" versions from the three cities mentioned above, or variations that include other ingredients and reduced cooking time. But "real" cassoulet not only must have certain elements such as duck or goose fat and white beans, but also takes at least two days to prepare.

And even then, the arguments over a rendition's "purity" are many and varied. Like most anything French, cassoulet is the subject of fierce debate in its homeland, especially among the towns that claim to have made the dish their own.

"It's more contentious than rugby," said Vincent Francoual, chef/owner of Minneapolis' Vincent A Restaurant, "It's like la bataille des cloche, the battle of the church."

Russell Klein, chef/owner of St. Paul's Meritage (which, like Vincent, serves cassoulet daily during winter months), called it "the French equivalent of barbecue, with different people arguing for Carolina barbecue or Memphis or Texas or Kansas City-style."

The two agree on one important aspect of cassoulet: Both insist on using Tarbais beans.

"We take our beans very seriously," Francoual said.

Home cooks tend to be more flexible, and not just because they can't get the spendy Tarbais at wholesale prices (which still run about $8 a pound).

Colleen Colbeck of Minnetonka said she doesn't "work that hard on the beans. I focus on the meats and the confit. If I can get the high-end beans, I do, but I have made it with Great Northern and cannellinis or even fava beans.

"Every time I make cassoulet, it's different, depending on my mood, the ingredients, what I can get."

And that shows true allegiance to the dish's origins: as a peasant stew made with whatever was around when the harvest was long past.

Dried beans, ducks and bread crumbs tended to be readily available even in the most plebeian homes, and many other meats became part of the dish.

Even with today's versions likely including young lamb rather than mutton and those pricey white beans, Francoual and Klein insist that cassoulet remains a peasant dish. "It is a comfort food, and it's from a farm," said Francoual. "You will never see it in a gastronomic restaurant."

Klein noted, "I'm using Wild Acres duck and Compart Duroc pork, so to that extent we're using the best ingredients. But when peasants made it, they were using the best ingredients."

Interpreting a directive

Cassoulet dates to at least the 14th century, and hard-and-fast recipes didn't emerge until much later. Castelnaudary's rendition included pork rind and pork knuckles, while Carcassonne's called for mutton and partridge, and Toulouse's required at least one kind of sausage.

But as with paella in Spain and seafood stews throughout the Mediterranean basin, home cooks have improvised with whatever meats they could scrounge up -- which is "fish out of water" territory for Americans, who are used to having access to whatever materials they need, and to following directions.

"People come in with their recipe, and they think they have to stick to it," said Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancey's Meats in Minneapolis' Linden Hills neighborhood.

"And because we don't have skin-on pork [banned on these shores], they walk out. Which is kind of weird when you think about cassoulet's history, as a peasant food made with whatever was available.

"You're interpreting a directive. That's half the beauty of cooking, to make an adjustment when something is not readily available."

Colbeck and Shovein buy a lot of their cassoulet meats at Clancey's, especially the market's signature garlic sausage.

The actual preparation spans at least two days. After sautéing chopped veggies and chunks of meat separately, the combined result is simmered, then refrigerated overnight, with the fat skimmed off the next day and the dish is reheated.

That's one reason Shovein makes sure that his guests don't arrive until shortly before it's time to eat.

"You walk into a house where somebody's cooking cassoulet, it's that old apple-pie syndrome," he said. "You open the windows, and the neighbors get seriously jealous."

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643