By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Food Columnist
It’s time to turn up the thermostat and pull out the wool socks. And stock pots. Steaming bowls of soups and hearty stews are a welcome counter to the brisk autumn air. One of my favorite fall/winter dishes to prepare is cassoulet, a rich and savory slow-cooked bean dish from the southern France. Even after the “cassoulet incident of 2008,” it remains one of my favorite Sunday dinner fares.
There I was, the private chef, working a two-week gig in Scottsdale, in the palatial Tuscan-style home of “Madam.” I’d been there many times and knew the house and the mistress well. Madam decided to host a dinner party that would feature an “oh-so-French menu” from her Provençal cookbook, autographed by the chef/author she’d met at an annual food and wine event (where people like Madam and Sir pay way too much money to rub elbows with more of their kind). The proceeds from the pricy night of schmoozing with celebrity chefs benefited the hungry and homeless.
Our menu that evening would feature a standing rack of veal (which I was to ceremoniously parade around the table before carving and plating on the sideboard), cassoulet and an assortment of roasted root vegetables. Starter courses included an olive tart and mussels in cream sauce. Two ovens and twice as many dishes was going to be a challenge; the veal would cook at a very low temperature, the tart required a high temperature in the small oven and the two large bakeware pans for the cassoulet and the roasted vegetables needed a fair amount of time in the large oven. It would be tricky.
The olive tarts wouldn’t fit in the small oven, so I reshuffled the food, removed the roast from its roasting pan, wrapped it in foil and shoved it into the smaller oven. Once the crusty tarts were done, I removed them, and placed the cassoulet and root vegetables in the oven.
The evening began with cocktails and appetizers in the living room before the guests proceeded to the Venetian-plastered dining room and I began plating and serving the courses. The delicately sauced mussels, garnished with fresh sprigs of thyme, were the final offering before I began plating the main course.
Opening the large oven door, I encountered billowing black smoke. I shut the door, shuddered in fear and took mere seconds to contemplate my next move. In one hasty move, I opened the door, grabbed a pan, closed the oven with the back of my foot, rushed to the patio, opened the BBQ, shoved the burning mass inside and closed the lid. I quickly repeated the process with pan number two. My heart pounded. The fear of serving smoldering, charcoal-like food was only intensified by the fear that Madam might show up in the kitchen to see why the meal was late. Quickly I turned each pan upside down and shook what wasn’t burned onto a sheet pan. I covered it with foil and gave it a chance to recover. I had no time for the same.
I drew a deep breath and presented myself in the dining room to remove the mussel bowls and offer fresh bread. And to see if there was any residual smoke or odor from my mishap. Nothing. The kitchen gods worked in my favor.
And so the show began! I carried the standing veal roast around the table, stopping at each setting for an approving nod before carving and plating. I followed up with the cassoulet and vegetables, placing a puny portion on everyone’s plate. I give them a quick nod and smile, and retreated to the kitchen for a quick (and well-earned) sip of icy vodka.
Those pans were a mess, a nightmare even, and looked as though they’d been used to fuel a coal operated steam engine. My first concern was finding a hiding spot until I could tackle them with some serious elbow grease. I slid them into a big black garbage bag, added some dish soap and warm water and secured the top of the bag. I hid the bag in the cabinet under the BBQ grill, washed my blacked-flecked hands and checked on the guests.
They raved over the veal and demanded another chop apiece. And, please, more of that fabulous cassoulet. Madam reported it to be perfect—so creamy and savory! It was like none they’d ever tasted (I’d say). I explained how I liked to crank the oven up real high at the very end, to set the flavors of the meat and fat into the beans (a bit of a stretch, but that night was about self-preservation). I only felt a tinge of guilt when one of the guests actually thanked me for sharing this fabulous tip.
Over the following days, whenever Sir and Madam left on a golfing outing or shopping excursions, I dug out those pans and scrubbed until my fingers ached. A week later, I left the pans spotless, the mini-mansion intact and my secret safe. And forever more, when preparing cassoulet, I find myself double checking the oven temperature. Keep your oven at a steady 325 degrees and give this recipe a try. It’s rich and filling. No standing rib roast required.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
The first cassoulet was created during the Hundred Years War. Bringing together all their remaining food, the inhabitants of Castelnaudary prepared a dish composed of dried beans and various meats to nourish their bold defenders.
Other than soaking the beans, and the oven time, the preparation can be done in about 45 minutes. Well worth the effort. Serve with rustic bread and a small green salad.
•1 lb dried white beans (preferably Great Northern)
•8 ¼ cups cold water
•2 cups chicken broth
•1 tablespoon tomato paste
•2 cups chopped onion
•6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
•2 stalks celery, cut into thirds
•2 carrots, unpeeled, cut into thirds
•3 fresh thyme sprigs
•3 whole cloves
•4 sprigs parsley
•¼ cup chopped flat parsley leaves
•¼ teaspoon whole black peppercorns
•1 (14-oz) can stewed tomatoes, finely chopped with juice
•¼ lb diced salt pork
•4 chicken thighs
•1 lb cooked smoked pork kielbasa, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch-thick slices
•1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
•2 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs (homemade are best, using rustic bread)
•1 ½ teaspoons salt
•½ teaspoon black pepper
Cover beans with cold water, soak overnight. Drain in a colander. Transfer beans to a 6- to 8-quart pot and bring to a boil with 8 cups cold water, broth, tomato paste, onion, and 2 tablespoons garlic.
Put celery, carrots, thyme, bay leaf, cloves, parsley sprigs, and peppercorns in cheesecloth and tie into a bundle with string to make a bouquet garni. Add bouquet garni to beans, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until beans are almost tender, about 1 ½ hours. Stir in tomatoes with juice and simmer until beans are just tender, about 15 minutes more.
Prepare salt pork, chicken thighs and sausage while beans simmer:
Brown salt pork in 10-inch heavy skillet over moderate heat, until browned and crisp, transfer to bowl. Cook thighs in skillet until skin is crisp, transfer thighs to bowl, leaving fat in skillet. (You should have about 1/4 cup fat; if not, add olive oil.) Brown sausage in batches in fat in skillet, then transfer to bowl with salt pork and chicken, reserving skillet. Preheat oven to 325°
Make bread crumb topping:
Add remaining tablespoon garlic to fat in skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in bread crumbs and cook, stirring, until pale golden, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in chopped parsley and ½ tsp salt and ¼ tsp pepper
Remove bouquet garni from beans and discard, then stir in kielbasa, thighs, remaining tsp of salt, and remaining ¼ tsp pepper. Ladle cassoulet into casserole dish, distributing meat and beans evenly.
Spread bread crumb topping evenly over cassoulet and bake, uncovered, in lower third of oven, until bubbling and crust is golden, about 1½ hours. (check to sure cassoulet says moist, add ¼ cup chicken broth, once or twice, if needed (careful to disturb the bread crumbs as little as possible).