As I sit in the sunroom pondering those worries that prevent a steady slumber, the kitchen gods often whisper to me. This would indeed be a perfect late summer’s eve for a cassoulet. It is unseasonably cool, damp, and we have survived yet another torrent. And, of course, Jon and I crave a familiar creation that at once comforts our cockles and restores our hearth’s dominion.
As with other such recipes and traditions, mine is borrowed, augmented, and made more appropriate for our odd lifestyle and tired taste-buds. What was once a French country peasant staple is now a Marklewood delight, and further one that allows for great freedom of expression. I also find that such a creation allows me the opportunity to “gently” clean the icebox of neglected ingredients!
Cassoulets are, by tradition, a crocked meal, at once combining meats, beans, herbs, and sauce, although I usually add rice. Rice is my current starch trend as I prefer its texture (and Henry, who adores “people food”, is awfully fond of the saffron variety!) As with all well-intended and pragmatic one-pot meals, I begin with selection of the perfect vessel, in this case a ceramic and lidded cooker. Friends, I urge you to verify any such choice to ascertain whether it is indeed oven-worthy, as I have oft let an assumption lead me astray. Of course, such a ducky preparation would be divine if the cats would hike down to the lake and rustle up some fowl.
Today, I am using a teal hand-sculpted three-quart work of art that my friend Patricia, a dear and rather Bohemian pottress, created for me years ago. It had a domed cover with a peculiar and thus engaging finial. I begin the layering process (I adore creating levels of taste in such meals) by meticulously placing a vegetable along the bottom of the pot.
Although a cassoulet would by tradition call for white beans, I am using Brussels sprouts, as I have fresh ones on hand and, although Jon doesn’t quite understand them, he will tolerate them in certain preparations. I ready them by quartering them and sautéing them with butter and garlic, and then line them up like attentive soldiers, back to back or a similar formation.
I then spoon a melange of similarly sautéed onions and mushrooms and make every attempt to cleverly conceal the waiting sprouts.
Upon this layer, I add about four cups of rice. I offer “about” as one perk to this concoction is that exactness of quantities is unimportant, as the flavors compliment in any sensible proportion. Henry prefers saffron rice, as it melds mild flavor, texture, and butter, which is intoxicating to an indoor puss.
The final layer is that of substance, or meat if you must. I prefer sausages as they contribute full flavor. Today I am taking the ever appropriate Summer sausages, browning them in a skillet, and then slicing them for ease in placement. Sometimes it is all about such ease, lest I forget an unfortunate creation of last year. That incident will safely go unposted and forever unshared.
Once all of the layering is complete and I am certain that there is absolutely nothing else I can add, I place the cover … ultimately cooking the cassoulet for forty minutes at 375 degrees. Again, with such a preparation, there is no need to be exact so even a half hour longer will not overcook the dish … just allow you more time on your favorite social networking site before dinner.
What I adore about this hearty meal is that the flavors essentially trickle down: The mushrooms and onions position themselves between the sprouts, sharing in the garlic, and filling any gaps. The rice fills similar gaps thus created by the mushrooms and onions, absorbing butter. And the juices and herbed flavors from the sausage similarly infuse the rice.
As I wait for the dish to complete and the timer to chime, I ponder two other reasons for my fondness. First, I can use the same sauté pan for the Brussels sprouts, ‘shrooms, and meat, thereby creating only one such pan to wash. Secondly, the cook time allows me the opportunity to wash and quickly put away that very pan and any utensils or holding bowls. I so enjoy having only one cooker to clean after dinner!
One final note, my friends: when spooning and “plating” your cassoulet, use the largest spoon you can find. Gently ease it towards the bottom of the dish and simply scoop. Never try to mix the ingredients. Sometimes it is best to allow the flavors and aromas to gently transition while on the plate and, thus, avoid offering instead just one big ole complex taste! There is such an effort as “over-mixing” as I have been vehemently accused on many a night!
In closing, oh comrades in cookery, Jon and I anticipate a warm and hearty dinner, worthy of an Arctic evening, or the weather of a storm. Someday, perhaps you will join us, although there may not always be a cleared chair. However, there is indeed always plenty of food to nourish and savor. Usually.
As they say in the South of France: “Bon Appetit, Y’all!”
(Note: Such a dish goes well with almost any robust wine, although I prefer a pinot noir. More importantly, I would put a Karen Akers CD on the carousel and turn the volume a little higher than is customary.)
(Image: “Untitled” by Zamfir Dumitrescu.)