"Cassoulet, that best of bean feasts, is everyday fare for a peasant but ambrosia for a gastronome, though its ideal consumer is a 300-pound blocking back who has been splitting firewood nonstop for the last twelve hours on a subzero day in Manitoba."
-- Julia Child
Mary was home this weekend for a brief visit and because it had finally turned (relatively) cold out, I decided to make a cassoulet* in her honor.
In these days of real and fake news, I feel compelled to put an asterisk by the name of the rustic stew of beans and meats that I served on Saturday night. Mine is far from the classic french dish first served in 1355 during the siege of Castelnaudary in the Hundred Years War. Legend has it that the besieged townspeople gathered their remaining food to create a big stew cooked in a cauldron to nourish and bolster their defenders. The meal was so fortifying that the soldiers handily banished the invaders, saving their city from occupation.
There does not seem to be a clear consensus on what goes into an authentic French cassoulet, but just know that it requires a labor of love, a diligent search for unusual ingredients, and a large block of concerted time in the kitchen. I can remember reading an essay in the now defunct Gourmet magazine that gave instructions for making one that spread the steps out over multiple days. From cooking the pork rind, to confitting the duck legs, to soaking the white beans, it made me realize that I probably wasn't up to the task.
|Last week's New York Times included an authentic cassoulet recipe |
as one of ten classic dishes for the modern cook to master.
So I contented myself with ordering cassoulet anytime I found it on a menu. I've ordered it in Paris, in Montreal, and even at the Holly Hill Inn in Midway, Kentucky. Each time, I revel in the velvety beans, the chucks of meat and, my favorite part: the bread crumbs that form a crusty top.
One of the best cassoulets that I've ever tasted was served five years ago at a small dinner party hosted by former Louisvillians Mary and Jim Oppel at their home in the Dordogne, in southwest France. I was seated next to Jim and was going on and on about the cassoulet. I wanted to know how he made it, how long it took, what meats it features. Finally, he confessed that it wasn't an authentic cassoulet, but rather one that he made from a recipe in a 1968 cookbook, published in Louisville, KY by Farmington, a historic house located not far from our home in Louisville. Of all things, it used canned beans, leftover chicken thighs and country sausage. It could be put together in part of an afternoon with ingredients that could be found at our local Kroger. It was. delicious.
I happened to have my grandmother's copy of The Farmington Cookbook and sure enough, there on page 235, I found the recipe for the faux cassoulet. I've been making it ever since.
Of course you know by now that I am notorious for not following a recipe, and so here is my adaptation.
4 oz. diced pancetta
1 pound hot Italian sausage
6 boneless chicken thighs
Note: you could substitute pork chops/tenderloin,
bacon, dark meat turkey or duck breast.
4 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 cans of great northern or cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 cups chicken stock, hot
2 teaspoons beef concentrate
1/2 cup wine vinegar
28 oz. canned tomatoes (diced)
4 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon basil
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
several dashes of Tabasco or other hot sauce
2 cups of dry bread crumbs or panko crumbs
1/4 cup olive oil
In a dutch over or other heavy pan, cook pancetta and remove to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Then cook sausage and remove to a bowl with slotted spoon. In remaining grease, cook chicken thighs and remove to a bowl with slotted spoon. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of grease and add onions to the pan, saute until they are soft and golden brown. Add garlic and cook for an additional 2 minutes. Add tomatoes and seasonings and cook until almost dry.
In a buttered casserole dish (9"x13") put a layer of beans, then sausage, chicken, and pancetta, then tomatoes, ending with another layer of beans. Mix beef concentrate with a little of the hot chicken stock, add vinegar and and pour over the casserole. Add chicken stock to barely come up to the top layer. Cover thickly with crumbs, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 325, uncovered, until liquid is absorbed, but cassoulet is still moist, about an hour. Bread crumbs should be golden brown. Sprinkle with additional parsley before serving.
Note: sometimes I make two smaller dishes and freeze one. I do not put the bread crumbs on the frozen one until I am ready to bake it.