Don't these words inspire you?
I admit to having been seduced by reading about cassoulet long before I ate it. I read about its history, about the importance of the local beans from Tarbes, the traditional ceramic dish, narrow at the bottom, wide at the top, the arguments over which meats must be included - duck confit or goose or both, lamb or not, pork parts of all kinds, local Toulouse sausages.
Enthusiasts would argue, too, about whether to include tomatoes, yes or no on bread crumbs, breaking the crust - or not - as the dish cooks.
But most of all I liked reading about how cassoulet was a farmhouse dish meant to be served to a crowd. My imagination filled in the farmhouse part - dark wood, probably; copper pots; a fire blazing in the big open fireplace in the kitchen; uncorked and unlabeled bottles of the farmer's wine, freshly carried up from the cellar, sitting on the long, much-used wooden table; and lots of crusty bread. (Georgeanne Brennan, S.F. Chronicle 1/30/11)
In the article, she continues to describe trundling around the French countryside by car searching for "Le Vrai Cassoulet," and finally nestling into a warm corner of a comfortable restaurant, spooning up mouthfuls of a delicious lunch.
There are 3 lovely recipes in the S.F. Chronicle article, and I of course, followed none of them. I had no flageolet (or similar large, white beans) so I substituted black-eyed peas (sacrebleu!) I did not have a can of crushed tomatoes so I substituted some tomato sauce left over from dinner on Friday (zut allors!) I had no ham-bones, pancetta or duck-confit so I substituted smoked chicken sausage (Mon Dieu! Quelle horreur!) Our dinner, however, was delicious, and even hours later, my house still smells like a French countryside restaurant...
2 cups black eyed peas (feel free to substitute some proper white beans, but I like black eyed peas just fine... and they only take approx. 30 minutes to cook... no soaking required!)
approx. 8 cups water (or broth)
1 tsp. dry thyme (the thyme in our garden was looking rather feeble)
some fresh rosemary if you can get your hands on some
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. salt (or to taste)
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper (or to taste)
a couple of pinches of cayenne
1-2 peeled carrots sliced into thick rounds
3 smoked chicken sausages, sliced (or whatever kind of sausage you have on hand...)
1-2 cups tomato sauce
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
1 yellow onion, sliced and diced
2 TBLSP chopped parsely (optional)
some olive oil
a wee splash of dry sherry (which I forgot to add, but will add tomorrow night when I reheat the left-overs!)
NOTE: I also made a traditional bread-crumb topping for our cassoulet this evening (see photo below.) However, my husband and I both agreed, the topping did not add to the dish. My advice? Don't bother with the bread-crumb topping...
Place beans, water, dry thyme, bay leaves and a rosemary sprig (or two) into a dutch oven. Bring to a boil and then simmer on stove top until beans are barely soft and still have a bit of resistance (for black eyed peas, this will take approx. 35 minutes... for large white beans, this will take 2-3 hours.)
Approx. 15 minutes before your beans finish cooking pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees. Add sliced sausages, sliced carrots, salt, a few dashes of cayenne & some black pepper to the dutch oven with the beans. Then, in a frying pan saute onion and garlic until lightly browned at the edges.
When beans are done cooking, spoon off any excess liquid. Add tomato sauce, sauteed onions/garlic and a wee splash of sherry to the pot. Mix gently being careful not to mash the beans (you want them to retain their shape.) Sprinkle (optional) parsley on top of bean mixture and cook in pre-heated oven approx. 30 minutes.
Enjoy with some thick, crusty bread, red wine and imagine you are in Carcasonne...