White beans are very high on my list of comfort foods, especially when the temperature drops. So when the forecast comes out for a cold snap, and the grocery stores have run on bread, milk, beer and wine; I find my comfort in white beans. They add flavor, richness and texture as the star of a simple white bean soup or a minestrone; their political clout include a classic preparation in the United States Senate, and they have a marvelous affinity with the flavors of smoked meats like ham or bacon. They say Paris is a city of romance and I must say that my personal love affair with white beans started there, in a pot of Cassoulet the classic white bean dish from Auvergne and Languedoc regions. Waverly Root, a writer who wrote a wonderful book The Food of France, had an interesting theory about the development of regional French Cuisine, dividing the regions by the fat that they used in their cooking. We all think of French food as full of butter, but that is the more upscale food of the cities; in the countryside they used the fat that was most readily and economically available.
And for Cassoulet it is primarily pork, although often with the addition of duck or goose fat. All three of these fats are very flavorful and useful in cooking, similar to the can of bacon and sausage fat that our Grandmothers often kept on the side of the stove, using to flavor many dishes. But back to the Cassoulet stories...
On one of my visits to the left bank of the Seine, some Parisian friends led us down a small, sparsely lit street off the Boulevard St. Germain and then down a few steps into a dimly lit room filled with the fragrances of long simmered meats vegetables and, of course white beans. No need to order except to express a preference for red or white wine, and after that was served, out came a loaf of crusty bread, wide bowls were distributed and a cast iron pot was placed in the middle of the table. It truly is beyond my skill with words to describe the deep aromas that emanated from that pot, but ever since I have been in love with white beans, and have yet to find a preparation of them that I did not love. In fact it is often the dish that I treat myself to around the December holidays. I make a batch and keep it in the fridge, spooning out a portion or two, heating it up with some stock to keep it from drying out, and enjoying it with some crusty bread, maybe with a glass of wine. For me there is no better refuge from a chilly day, or when I am in need of a French nostalgic fix, especially since on my last trip to Paris, I found that wonderful little restaurant had suffered a fire, and looked sadly as if it might not open again.
One December I had made a particularly flavored batch and took it to a lady friend’s house to enjoy, after my whirlwind of holiday food catering on Christmas Eve. Tired from all of the frenzy and running around, we put the cassoulet in the oven to warm up, and relaxed on the couch in front of the fire with some nice Balvenie scotch. A while later we noticed that it was bit smoky, and found the smoke billowing out of the oven, with flames coming out of the back vent. It turned out her roommate had been cooking Turduckens all December and had let the fat run over and accumulate in the bottom of the oven, where it waited for a spark. I opened the oven, which made the flames bigger, but retrieved the cassoulet pan...
we found the box of baking soda from the refrigerator...doused the fire with the soda, let it cool...cleaned the oven out...
and reheated the cassoulet as we went back to enjoying the scotch. Definitely one of my more memorable Christmas Eves, but the cassoulet was marvelous, as was the company and the scotch! So here is my recipe for a simple cassoulet, to which you can add other favorite meats or sausages. Enjoy, but don’t start any fires! Or if you do make sure you invite me over and I will help clean the oven and enjoy the cassoulet with you!
4 ounces bacon, cut in chunks
1- 4 ounce Abruzze style salami, diced
6 ounces pork sliced
2 cups onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1 cup carrots, diced
2 TB browned garlic
2 cups white wine
2 cups tomato sauce
2 TB thyme
2 TB parsley, chopped to taste salt, pepper and Mrs. Dash
4 cups white beans, cooked 2 cups chicken stock
6 each fresh pork, chicken or duck sausages, or Italian sausage As needed Fresh bread crumbs
In a wide sauté pan, put the bacon and just enough water to cover. Cook the bacon until the water evaporates and the bacon crisps lightly.
Add the salami and pork, brown lightly. Remove meats, keeping fat in the pan. Strain the oil through a coffee filter if too brown.
Sauté the onion, celery and carrots until soft and lightly browned.
Add the garlic and deglaze with the white wine.
Allow to reduce by 2/3 and add the tomato sauce, reserved meats, seasonings, beans , and stock Sprinkle with 1 cup of bread crumbs. Bring to a simmer and simmer for 20 minutes.
Stir the mix which mixes in the bread crumbs for thickening and place the sausages into the mix.
Add more stock if necessary.
Cover top with bread crumbs and place in oven for at least ˝ hour browning the breadcrumbs. It can stay in the oven longer, but you might need to add some more stock and breadcrumbs.
Serve with hearty french bread.