When I was in graduate school, my California friends and acquaintances would invariably ask the same question with every visit home: “Remind me where it is you attend school? It's one of the I states, isn't it?”
After years of replying “Indiana,” the abbreviated responses remained constant: in summer, "Ooh, Hot!" and in winter, "Ooh, Cold!" The utterances were delivered with the force of profound revelation, and typically joined by smirking condescension, not unlike that of an older sibling informing a younger sibling that there is no Santa Claus.
Little did they know that while "grim" often defined my Midwest winters, it rarely typefied my accompanying mood (and that’s coming from a bonafide cold-weather whiner who dons mittens and scarf when the temperature dips below 65).
Here’s why: daily survival on freezing, miserable days cheered me. Residents of idyllic weather states may miss out on shoveling snow and scraping frozen car windows, but they also lose the tiny joys derived from minor mid-winter feats, such as making it through the day without careening headlong into a snowbank or losing the feeling in one's face.
Now that I once again live in a sunny state (Texas), I’m still (occasionally) nostalgic for those winter victories that brightened many otherwise bleak days: dry socks, sidewalk steam vents, nonskid soles, and making it home, unscathed, to savor central heating, slippers and a warming supper.
But I can still make one of my favorite celebratory suppers from those days past, and today is a good day to do it: our lone state weather-forecasters are predicting a return of old man winter for the next few days (in the low 60s, oh no! Crank up the thermostat and send in the downs!). The dish in question is a simplified cassoulet, a dish that champions home comfort. It sounds like "casserole" and, similarly, it is an amalgamation of multiple ingredients baked ensemble.
Authentic cassoulet is a rich, delectable concoction of goose confit, meats and beans cooked slowly in an earthenware pot.
The dish hales from Languedoc, part of the ancient land of Occitania, which includes all of southwestern France and whose language was the langue d'Oc, the language of the troubadours.
The Languedoc can be divided into three gastronomic regions: the Languedoc Mediterenee (think garlic, olive oil and herbs); the Roussillon or Pays Catalan (couple the olive oil with the lusty rustic flavors of ham and sausage); and the Languedoc Toulousain, home of cassoulet, where olive oil yields to goose fat and the dishes are hearty, meaty and earthy.
The flavor of authentic cassoulet is extraordinary and complex. Regrettably, the same holds true for the preparation, making it beyond the realm of my typical weeknight reportoire. Moreover, goose fat is markedly absent from my pantry, and I have no immediate plans for goose wrangling. For these reasons, an efficient rendering seems more than justified.
My streamlined cassoulet is not a complete break from the original. According to several sources, everyone in Languedoc who makes cassoulet fervently contends theirs is the authentic version, but every recipe is slightly different. Consider this recipe one permutation of many. I make no claims of authenticity, but am passionate about the contribution of this undemanding dish to the small thrills of winter.
And Now a Brief Message from the Parsnips Advisory Board...
If you've peaked at the recipe, I know what you're thinking: what will I substitute for the parsnips?
Don't do it! Give parsnips a chance. They're waiting for you in the grocery store, right next to the other root vegetables. Even the most miserable produce sections carry parsnips.
Take a look: elegant, slender, and sophisticated, yet low-maintenance all the way (just like their cousins, carrots).
Now take them home. Peel them up, cut into a dice, and toss in the cassoulet. When the cooking's done, take a taste. Sweet, earthy, and surprise: delicious! You'll wonder why you've shunned them all these years. They're a perfect foil to the sausage, in particular.
Before you start searching your cookbooks for parsnips recipes (it's ok to admit it: you've never perused parsnips before), hold tight: I have two doozies for you tomorrow. In the meantime, enjoy the cassoulet.
Enlightened Sausage & Sage Cassoulet
Don't worry about the large yield for this recipe if your household has a short number of inhabitants; the leftovers are smashing, so you'll want to have a day-after dinner or lunch.
Transfer leftovers to a smaller baking dish up to 2 days. Reheat at 375° F for about 20 minutes. To make ahead and freeze, prepare without the breadcrumb topping. Cover and freeze up to 4 months. When ready to cook, uncover the cassoulet, sprinkle with the breadcrumb mixture, and bake, unthawed, 45 minutes to 1 hour at 400° F.
Be sure to have a glass of wine or two; you'll need the hydration to balance out the sodium from the sausage :).
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 1-pound package light smoked sausage, cut into thick slices at an angle
1 large onion, chopped
1 and 1/4 cups chicken broth
3 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
3 parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 15 -ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained
3 tablespoons canned tomato paste
3 15-ounce cans of great Northern, cannellini, or navy beans, drained and rinsed
2 and 1/2 teaspoons rubbed sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup plain breadcrumbs (preferably fresh)
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
In a Dutch oven or other large, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. Cook the sausage and onions until sausages are browned and onions softened. Add the chicken broth, carrots, parsnips, tomatoes, tomato paste, beans, thyme, sage, salt, pepper, and half of the garlic.
Increase heat to medium-high and mix well, scraping up any brown bits that have stuck to the bottom of the Dutch oven. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes to 1 hour, until thickened and the vegetables are tender.
Heat oven to 400°F. In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, parsley, remaining tablespoon olive oil and remaining garlic. Sprinkle evenly over the cassoulet and place in the oven. Bake, uncovered, until the crust is golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Makes 8 servings.
Nutrition per Serving (1/8 of the cassoulet):
Calories 265; Fat 7.3g (poly 0.6g, mono 3.3g, sat 1.5g); Protein 16.5g; Cholesterol 25mg; Carbohydrate 41.1g; Sodium 989.1mg)
(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1 )