Cassoulet Dreams

It’s everywhere. I can’t get away from it. And it’s awesome.

Two weeks ago, we were hanging out with the Deers, who not only gave us the hard sell on pressure cookers, but served up a mighty fine cassoulet. They did it the long/right way too: making a duck confit and using that as the base for the beany, sausagey goodness to come. I’m convinced they somehow inspired the NY Times, too, since Mark Bittman deigned to make his own cassoulet the following weekend.

His recipe sounds lovely, but also requires quite a commitment. For the record, anything involving duck counts as “commitment cooking,” meaning the ingredients are (1) expensive, (2) hard to find, (3) unfamiliar/difficult to work with/intimidating. Good duck hits the trifecta for me. Married to a hunter-gather, and as an apprentice hunter-gatherer, I should get over being intimidated by a bird that’s not (rationally speaking) any more difficult to work with than chicken. Maybe if I watch Julie & Julia again that would help. Or not.

Back to cassoulet. Proper, Frenchy-French cassoulet requires the following: duck and its glorious fat, beans, and sausage. I first encountered this delight in France and thought I could eat it for the rest of my life. Fast-forward nearly 10 years: I have cassoulet again, thanks to the fabulous Deers. And now it haunts me. I swear I’m dreaming of cassoulet.

Cue the latest issue of Bon Appetit landing in our mailbox last week. Well helllloooooooo simple cassoulet recipe. Naturally, I must make/have. Purists will scream at me because there’s no duck. Get over it. I’m here to tell you that a delicious, duck-free, slightly Spanish cassoulet is easily within reach (the recipe, courtesy of the lovely people who shut down Gourmet, follows). It also takes far less time than proper cassoulet, so when you’ve been suffering from cassoulet dreams, it’s mighty satisfying and you’re more likely to have all of the ingredients on hand. Himself and I devoured this stuff all weekend and I enjoyed the rest of my share at work today. (That’s right, I apportion shares of preferred leftovers, which are labelled with our names. It may sound cute, but it’s a fail-safe way to keep Himself from eating all of the desirable leftovers. He’s welcome to the undesirable leftovers.)

What’s so good about this? The beans. The sausage is also excellent, but since we’re not selling our homemade venison sausage, I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up. But the beans! They’re moist and not quite falling apart, packed with a rich, meaty, tomatoey flavor. I’m thinking I could live on cassoulet again. Here’s the recipe, with my adjustments, based on what I had to hand and a dodgey stove.

Chorizo and Gigante Bean Cassoulet

3 cups dried gigante, corona, or large limas (I used large limas)

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling

8 fresh Spanish chorizo or hot italian sausage links, ~2lbs (I used venison sausage, but almost any quality sausage will work)

1 leek, white and pale green section, cut into 1/4″ rounds

1 small yellow onion, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (I confess, I buy those big tubs of minced garlic at Costco because I’m lazy. Add 2-3 heaping tsp if you’re also lazy and think there’s no such thing as too much garlic.)

3 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained, chopped (optional, but who can pass up a bonafide chance to buy anchovies that you won’t really know you’re eating?)

1 tbsp tomato paste (I used the same amount of sauce)

11/2 tsp smoked paprika (I used regular paprika, but added 1/2 tsp of smoky chipotle seasoning we picked up at Penzey’s)

3 cups chicken broth (I used stock)

1 28-oz can whole tomatoes, drained, crushed with your hands (who does this? I used 2 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes and the earth continues to revolve)

7 sprigs thyme

2 bay leaves

2 sprigs rosemary (we were out of rosemary, but managed to choke the cassoulet down anyway)

Get your beans ready in one of three ways: (1) soak overnight in a pot covered by about 3″ of water (or “overnight” starting the morning you want to use them, i.e. 8 hours of soaking); (2) put beans in a pot covered by 3″ of water, bring to a boil, boil for 2 minutes, remove from heat, cover, and let stand one hour; (3) soften them up in a pressure cooker (can’t help you here, we haven’t started using a pressure cooker yet).

Drain the beans. Add fresh water to cover by 3″ (no, I don’t know why 3″ is the magical depth for beans). Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until beans are tender but not mushy, 1-1.5 hours. (Mine took about 40 minutes, so don’t set the timer for the full hour before you wander off.) Drain, reserving one cup of bean broth.

Preheat oven to 450F. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add sausage and cook, turning occasionally, until golden all over, 7-8 minutes. Transfer sausage to a plate and set aside. (Note: this can easily be a one pot meal if you use your pot for the beans, which would be hanging out in a colander at this point. Also, I was on slightly-higher-than-medium heat for this and the next step.)

Place 2 tbsp oil, leek, and onion in same pot. Season with salt and pepper, cook, stirring occasionally, until veggies are softened and light golden, about 5 mins. Add garlic and anchovies, stir 1 minute to break down anchovies. Add tomato paste (sauce) and paprika (plus chipotle!), stir constantly until paste is caramelized, about 2 minutes. (I have no idea what caramelized tomato paste looks like. I’ve never seen it. I just stirred for a few minutes until everything was bubbly and well mixed. Sauce in lieu of paste may be the reason.) Add reserved cup of bean broth, beans, chicken broth, and next 4 (3 in my case) ingredients. Bring to a boil.

Cover, and bake until beans are very tender, about 30 minutes. (Mine took 20.) Add whole sausages, including any accumulated juices to pot, pressing to submerge. Bake covered until liquid is reduced and slightly thickened, 40-45 minutes longer. (I think I did 40 minutes on this step.)

Breadcrumb topping!

Add 2 cups of fresh breadcrumbs (3-4 slices of bread introduced to a food processor) to 3 tbsp oil you’ve heated in a large skillet on medium heat. Cook, stirring often, until golden and crisp, about 10 minutes. (Do not ask your husband who’s been pruning trees all afternoon to help with this. His jelly arms will scatter breadcrumbs all over the place.) Season with salt and pepper. Remove cassoulet from often and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Return to oven, uncovered, until crumbs are browned and liquid is bubbling, about 15 minutes. (Mine took 10.)

Remove pot from over and let rest for 15 minutes!!! This is important! Cassoulet needs to congeal slightly to be perfect. It will be too gloppy if you serve it now. Sit on your hands or go make a salad to pass the time. When it’s ready, sprinkle some lemon zest (a tsp or so)  and chopped parsley (at least 1/4 cup) over the cassoulet; they add a lovely bright note.

Take a deep breath, and enjoy.

Since making this, I’ve thought that crushed tortilla chips would also make an excellent topping, in lieu of breadcrumbs, but you’ll totally take a hit on authenticity. Then again, do you have real French people coming to dinner? I think it could also be successful with some nice big portabello mushrooms, in lieu of sausage, if you wanted a vegetarian version (sub veggie for chick broth too, obvs). I don’t think mushrooms would affect the cooking times either; however, I would cook the mushrooms longer than the sausage, a minimum of 10 minutes in the pan. That’s when they start to get a nice earthy buzz to them.

And that’s it.

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