We just ended one of the most, if not THE most contentious electoral seasons in recent memory. And after a steadily growing logjam in Washington, I hope we all are beginning to realize that the time for give and take, the time for compromise on both sides is now. I’ve been known to hold (and share, occasionally loudly) strong beliefs on certain things. And I admit I can dig in my heels and be as stubborn as any Blue or Red around. So In the spirit of compromise and easing the stalemates of the past, I thought I’d get the ball rolling and seek détente and compromise on a very important issue…Cassoulet. Let me explain.
A good friend and I began the debate innocently enough several years ago. Me: “I went to that restaurant you recommended in San Francisco and ordered the cassoulet. HOLY COW that dish is amazing!” Him: "Yeah, it’s really good. You know, I make cassoulet every winter. Want the recipe?” Naturally I said yes, but was unprepared for what came next. Over two pages containing step after mind-numbing step rolling out over two days. Boiling various pig parts multiple times. Five different things to buy at the butcher, none of them cheap. An entire bottle of wine sacrificed into the pot and therefore not being drunk. A list of ingredients over 20 items long! Believe me, I’ve never been one to shy away from a day of cooking and getting knee deep in a worthwhile recipe. But come ON! By the time I was finished buying the ingredients I’d be out a c-note at least!
“Seriously?” I replied. “Isn’t cassoulet a peasant dish? Basically a bean stew with various piggy parts and maybe a few duck legs serving more as condiment than main attraction? What effete elitist recipe writer decided it should be a gourmet dish?! My friend just shrugged, said it was based upon Julia’s and is the best way to do things. But I wasn’t buying it, and the battle lines were drawn. To me, here was another a dish invented by the Have-Lesses and co-opted, snootified and priced out of reach by the Haves. And even though it was based upon HER recipe (and I love her), there was no way I was going to support such an elitist approach. My high heels were firmly dug in and not budging.
Unfortunately, I really loved the dish I had in San Francisco, and knew I had to make it. So this self-proclaimed "cook of the people" looked for a recipe that didn’t cost the price of a week’s groceries and could be started, finished and enjoyed in the same day, along with a glass or two from that bottle of wine. I thought I found it when I came upon Mark Bittman’s crock-pot cassoulet in The New York Times. My friend’s “2-Percenter” version was Michael Lewis’ printed in Gourmet. I made my version, liked it, and sent him my find in an email, along with all the righteousness and smug I thought it warranted. He made it and the result was what you’d expect. He wasn’t buying my “98-Percenter” version. Bittman’s was too soupy, he said. Lewis’ was too expensive and elaborate, I said. For many years the impasse remained that way. There was no discussion. There was no compromise. It was a cassoulet brick wall.
The great cassoulet debate popped into my head while I was waiting my turn to vote. Perhaps I was too rash and stubborn. Perhaps there could be some compromise. And maybe, just maybe, there was a way to combine the two approaches, trim a little here, elaborate a little there, and come up with a delicious way to work together. So here it is, a cassoulet for the 100 percent. And I’d be happy to hop on a train to D.C with a big pot of it. Maybe it would inspire some others to compromise too.
The bones of this recipe started with one I found in Saveur magazine. I then started to play around with it, incorporating the slow cooker for a way to cook the beans without having to remember to soak them the night before (which I always seem to forget.) I then played around with the amounts of meat and duck fat to trim the calories a bit. Traditional cassoulet has almost 1,000 calories per serving, which was fine if you happen to be a farmer toiling in the fields all day. By reducing the amount of duck fat by half, not including the confit duck (though wonderful and I love it, it’s expensive and not the easiest to find in many places), substituting garlic turkey sausage for pork ones, and reducing the pancetta a bit in the bean prep, I was able to reduce the calories to about 600 per serving. Still a hearty dish, but certainly something you could get away with without having to plow the back forty to work it off.
· ¾ lb flageolet, great northern or navy beans (you want smaller beans than cannelli beans)
· 4-5 TBSP duck fat, or if you can’t find rendered duck fat, olive oil
· 1 head of garlic
· 2 leeks, chopped
· 2 carrots, chopped
· ¾ lb pork shoulder, cut into 1” cubes
· 4 ounces pancetta (in one piece)
· Bouquet garni = 2 sage leaves, 3 bay leaves, 4 sprigs thyme, 4 sprigs parsley
· 1 14oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
· 1 cup white wine
· 2 ½ cups chicken broth
· 1 lb garlic turkey sausage
· 1 ½ -2 cups breadcrumbs
Rinse the beans and put into the slow cooker*(see adaptation if you don’t have a slow cooker at bottom of recipe.) Cut the head of garlic in half, keep the top half in one piece and peel and smash the cloves in the bottom half – you’ll be using them later. Melt 1 TBSP duck fat in 4-6 quart dutch oven or large deep saucepan (that can go in the oven). Sauté the half the leeks, half the carrots, the half head of garlic and a good pinch of salt over medium heat for 8-10 minutes or until soft and lightly golden. Cut about a ¾” piece off the pancetta (1 ounce) and add to the beans. Add the sautéed vegetables to the slow cooker and enough water to cover the beans by about 2 inches. Cook on high setting for about 3-4 hours (start checking the beans at the 2 ½ hour mark – the beans should be tender but not mushy.) Once the beans are done, squeeze the garlic cloves out of the skins into the beans. Set the beans aside. (You actually could do this a day ahead and refrigerate if you wanted to, but my goal was a 1-day dish.)
Heat 1 TBSP duck fat (or olive oil) in the pot you used to sauté the vegetable for the beans. Salt and pepper the pork shoulder cubes and brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Add the pancetta and cook another 5 minutes until browned. Add the smashed garlic cloves to the pot, along with the remaining chopped carrot and leek. If you haven’t already, tie together the herbs for the bouquet garni (see ingredient list) and add to the pan with the can of tomatoes and their juices. Cook until liquid thickens, about 5-8 minutes. Add wine and reduce by half. Add broth. Bring to a boil, reduce to medium low, and simmer uncovered until liquid has thickened, about an hour.
Heat oven to 300ºF. Add the beans and their liquid to the pot with the meat and mix well. Remove the bouquet garni. Cover the pot with the breadcrumbs. Heat the remaining 2 TBSP duck fat and drizzle over the breadcrumbs. Bake for 2 ½ - 3 hours, or until the breadcrumbs are browned and form a crust, and the stew is bubbling on the sides. Calories: Approximately 600 per serving.
[* If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can make the beans in a pot on the stove. Soak the beans overnight in 7-½ cups water – DO NOT DRAIN. Sauté the vegetable according to directions above. Add the beans, pancetta and the soaking water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 1 ½ hours or until beans are tender.]
REHEATING NOTE: Since beans tend to keep soaking up the yummy goodness around them and get solid as they cool, reheated leftovers may be a little dry. Just add a little broth or water to the dish before you reheat and this shouldn’t be a problem.