Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Don't Call It Cassoulet -- French Savory Bean Stew

Don’t call it cassoulet.
Much like I try to avoid the “what is a true bouillabaisse” question, I similarly avoid the “what makes a true cassoulet” debate.

Not having a ready supply of duck confit nor the desire to make it, I have almost always made less than classic versions. For many years my favorite was a version with lamb shanks.

I have seem some abominable adaptations that were co-opting the name of this famous southwestern French dish for pretty much a dish of hearty stewed beans. I have had what was touted as an authentic version in Paris in a café in Montmartre renown for the dish. There it was served stuffed full of duck confit and pork sausages and with piles of freshly made potato chips on top instead of the bread crumb topping I expected. It was truly gilding the lily.

For the uninitiated, I guess I should back up and define a cassoulet. According to Herbst’s Food Lover’s Companion, it is “a classic dish from France’s Languedoc region consisting of white beans and various meats (such as sausages, pork and preserved duck or goose). The combination varies according to region. A cassoulet is covered and cooked very slowly to harmonize the flavors (page 106, third edition).”

It is the ultimate winter comfort food and pretty much defines the phrase “sticks to your ribs.” Serve it with plenty of crusty bread and follow it with a green salad. Don’t plan on too heavy a dessert; no one will have room or the fortitude for it!

While I’m sure my version would horrify a purist, I’m hoping Kate Hill of the blog of the same name and French Kitchen Adventures would find it an acceptable variation, since it was her donation to Menu for Hope 4 (a handmade cassole, or cassoulet pot, with beans and recipes) and her passion for the food of southwest France that made me hunger for some kind of cassoulet. Here is a recipe she published in her blog. Please check out her sites for more on making authentic cassoulets, including Camp Cassoulet and other classes.

Usually, I use small white beans (French ones if I have them on hand) and start with soaking and cooking them. The “quickie” version below relies on canned white kidney beans (also known as cannellini beans), but you certainly could replace them with fresh cooked beans or even with the small white navy or pea beans if you have them. I based this version on what I had in the pantry, fridge and freezer since I didn’t feel like making a trip to the store. That and my natural inclination for adding a bit more spice and seasoning and including more vegetables make this more of a California-inspired dish than a French one, perhaps. I used a North African-style sausage I happened to have in the house. I have had this sausage in French bistros here and there and enjoy the bite of heat and exoticness it adds to this dish and others. Substitutions are listed in the recipe. The result is a hearty dish with a melt-in-the-mouth texture and a real depth of flavors.

While I am calling this a stew, it is much drier in texture than that, it shouldn’t even be barely liquid and the stock and wine should be completely absorbed. If you make in it in advance (which I advise, the flavors will really meld and deepen) you’ll have to add more water or chicken stock to thin it out as it reheats. (FYI - If you are using an oven-proof pot, once the meats are browned and the vegetables sauteed you could make this in the oven instead of the stovetop.)

Don’t Call it Cassoulet – Savory French Bean Stew
Serves Six

For the stew:
6 chicken legs OR thighs
½ pound lamb merguez sausage OR mild Italian sausage OR smoked sausage
Grape seed or other vegetable oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Pinch or more of red pepper flakes
2 carrots, cut into large dice
2 stalks of celery, cut into large dice
1 medium red or yellow pepper, cut into ½ inch cubes
3-15 ounce cans of white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
32 ounces chicken stock
1/3 cup slivered dried tomatoes (drained if packed in oil)
2 tsp herbes de Provence seasoning
2 tbs tomato paste
8 ounces of red wine
½ pound small fingeringly or new potatoes, sliced into ½ inch rounds
Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:
2 thick slices (about 1 1/2 inches total) of fresh artisan or other crusty bread, enough to make about a cup of bread crumbs (I used a sweet French batard).
1 clove garlic
2 tbs fresh basil OR parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large, oven proof sauté pan, Dutch oven or similar, brown chicken, remove from pan. Brown sausage, remove from pan. Set aside. Add oil to pan if needed. Sauté onions over medium high heat until beginning to soften. Add garlic and red pepper flakes, sauté until beginning to color. Add carrots, celery and red or yellow pepper. Add beans, dried tomatoes, stock and Provencal seasonings. Mix well to combine. Add the tomato paste and red wine, stir well and bring to a simmer. Add the potatoes. Stir well. Lower heat to medium low and let cook covered until the mixture is thickened and the potatoes are almost soft. Slice the sausage into thick rounds and add the slices and any juices to the stew. Add the chicken pieces. Stir and cook covered until meat is cooked through. (If the mixture is too dry, add a few tablespoons of water or stock. If it is too liquid, finish cooking with the lid off.) Add salt and pepper to taste. (You can add the pepper earlier if you like, but be careful with the salt -- the sausage, the stock and the beans are all potential sources of salt.)

For the topping:
Note: If making ahead, reheat and make topping right before serving.
Preheat broiler. Toast the bread pieces until golden brown and let cool a bit. Rip into small pieces. In a food processor or blender, mince garlic with the basil. Add bread pieces and salt and pepper and process until the mixture is like that of bread crumbs about a quarter the size of a pea. Sprinkle on top of the cassoulet and put under broiling for a few minutes, watching carefully that the crust does not burn. Remove when the crumb topping is golden brown and serve.

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