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Joni Woolf: Preparing a cassoulet

In another lifetime, Jack Steppe and I decided to make a cassoulet (Jack was my second husband, an adventure in living). He did much of our cooking, which was a good reason to marry. He made sourdough bread regularly, and enjoyed experimenting with new dishes. So, when a recipe for the French dish, cassoulet, appeared in The Macon Telegraph, he thought we should try it. We did, it was delicious and it lasted for days. It is a recipe that serves a dozen folks generously, so when you make it, plan to invite those friends and family who enjoy new food adventures. This was an adventure for me; it called for foods I did not usually eat, and never purchased. So, it was a challenge. But we decided it would be fun to experiment with a dish that neither of us had ever tried, and if we liked it, we would later share with friends. It is an excellent winter-time dish, with a good mix of carbohydrates and proteins, as well as a variety of textures and flavors. Save it for a day when you have several hours to be in the kitchen.

Simple Cassoulet
(Preparation time: 1 hour. Cooking time, excluding soaking cooking time for beans: 4-4 ½ hours)
1 ½ pounds dry small white beans
1 head garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
½ teaspoon ground thyme
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
½ cup white wine
½ pound slab bacon
1 pound pork, cooked and cut into cubes (a small boneless roast works well here)
1 pound duck or chicken, cooked and cut into cubes (we used chicken, but duck is more authentic)
½ pound lamb, cooked and cut into cubes
1 pound chorizo or other hot sausage, cooked and cut into cubes
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 tablespoons melted butter (or bacon or duck fat)
Soak, rinse and cook beans according to package directions. Drain and set aside, saving the cooking liquid for another use. Place unpeeled head of garlic on a sheet of foil with olive oil. Tightly wrap foil around garlic. Place on a small pan and roast in a 350-degree F. oven 30 to 40 minutes, or until garlic is soft. Remove from oven and let cool. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Squeeze roasted garlic from skins into beans. Stir parsley, thyme, cloves, tomato paste and white wine into beans and set aside. Cut bacon into chunks and place in boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain and pat dry. Place bacon in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes, or until quite brown. Drain on a paper towel. When well drained, stir into beans. Drain the beans, reserving any liquid. Place a thick layer of beans in the bottom of a large deep casserole or Dutch oven. Cover with a layer each of meat, poultry and sausage and continue to make layers until all ingredients are used, ending with beans. Pour the seasoned bean liquid (not the cooking liquid — that comes later) over the top. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, then drizzle with melted butter. Place in a preheated oven (400 degrees F.) and bake about 30 minutes or until a crust has formed. Break the crust with a wooden spoon and push it down into the cassoulet. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees F. and bake for another 30 minutes and again break the crust. Repeat the process three times, adding reserved cooking liquid if cassoulet gets too dry. Serve directly from the pot, with the salad described below and with warm sourdough or focaccia bread. Add a glass of good red wine, perhaps a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Almond Mandarin Orange Salad, by Terry Holland
1 head red leaf lettuce
1 cup sliced celery hearts
4 green onions, finely cut
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 cups mandarin orange slices
½ cup toasted, salted almonds
Dressing: ½ teaspoon salt, dash of pepper, ¼ teaspoon Tabasco, 2 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar, ½ cup vegetable oil. Put together in a jar and shake well or whirl in a blender briefly. Toss chilled salad with dressing just before serving.

There you have it: A perfect winter meal for a crowd. You may need to double the salad recipe, but the cassoulet will feed as many as you decide to invite.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net