Flavors of France: McMan’s Winter Cassoulet
I’m looking out the window at five thousand feet of unwanted snow, cooped up inside with my cat and my wife and her stuffed panda collection, with winter comfort food as my only refuge.
My favorite is cassoulet, a traditional bean-meat peasant stew from Southwestern France. Various recipes have their ardent partisans, backed by centuries of provincial pride, so it is with mild trepidation that I put forth my low-fat version. But five million dinner guests (give or take four-odd million) can’t be wrong.
McMan’s Winter Cassoulet
Soak four cups of dried haricot (navy) beans in water overnight and rinse. Transfer beans to large pot or pan, add two chopped carrots, two peeled onions studded with three whole cloves each, and two cloves of minced garlic. Cover with water and simmer for about two hours until the beans are soft, skimming the foam from the surface. Various recipes call for adding a herb mix called bouquet garni. I fill up a metal tea ball with these herbs and drop it in.
Most recipes specify adding something obscenely high in fat to the brew such as pork rind or bacon. You can get a bacon-like flavor with no fat by sprinkling in smoked barbecue seasoning.
Now to the meats. Countless French medieval knights died in battle over the right ones to add. Goose, duck, pork, lamb, and sausage in various combinations all have their champions. I have found the actual meats don’t matter so much as the variety of the textures. As for taste, each meat picks up the flavor of the other (not to mention the beans and the sauce). I go with chicken thighs as a goose or duck substitute, pork, lamb, and low-fat kielbasa, about a ¾ pound to a pound each. Cube the chicken, pork, and lamb, and slice the kielbasa, and brown in a frying pan. Chop up two onions and brown, then add the onions and meats to the beans.
Remove the studded onions and tea ball from the bean mixture, then transfer to a casserole dish, along with the meats. Add a cup or two of white wine or chicken stock or both (some chefs also use tomato sauce), stir gently and bake uncovered for about a half hour to an hour.
Now here is one thing all partisans of cassoulet wholeheartedly agree upon – a good hearty crust. As a crust forms on top, push it down with a spoon, and spoon some liquid from beneath on top. This will give you an appreciation for how continents form (who says cooking can’t be educational?). Repeat this one or two times.
Remove your masterpiece and serve to the wild acclaim of your guests. Salad and French bread complete the production. This recipe serves eight, but is so good you may not feel like sharing it with anyone. Enjoy the snow.
Published On: February 16, 2006
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