Monday, January 28, 2013

Healthier French Cassoulet

For me, the whole concept of cassoulet - everything it represents - is endearing.  A French peasant dish that is the epitome of resourceful, hearty, and delicious.  When I teach the French Revolution I struggle to find the words to convey the romantic triumph of les paysans, thinking that maybe if I just explained (or served) cassoulet that would do it.  I do teach through food and the culture of food when I can (a great way to spark interest in the Silk Roads unit of World History), but this would be tricky in the classroom.  And perhaps, as a self-proclaimed Francophile, cassoulet is too sacred.

Ironically, a dish built on common ingredients and a bunch of animal scraps has become a high maintenance recipe in 21st century America.  Traditionally it calls for duck confit, smoked bacon or pancetta, lamb shoulder, and sometimes smoke sausage, and takes days to prepare.  The method is typical of braising, which raises some red flags for the health department over here at Jenessa's Dinners.  Garrett and I went through a huge braising kick about two years ago.  I was about 25 lbs heavier then.  Mais, non!  Oui, mes amis...oui. 
Colleagues and I take students to Europe every summer.
This is my favorite way to eat in France.

Garrett and me and le Tour.
Escargot and espresso,  typical.

I studied multiple recipes to see how I could play with the ingredients and still use a common method for a quick cassoulet.  The challenge was to capture the smokey richness of these proteins while sticking to chicken or turkey.  Voila.  Canadian bacon, chicken drumsticks, and a smoked turkey kielbasa achieved the essence of cassoulet.

Ingredients (5 servings):
  • 5 chicken drumsticks, skin removed
  • 1 package of smoked turkey kielbasa, or a smoke sausage of your choice, thickly sliced
  • 5 slices of Canadian bacon, thickly diced
  • 3 cans cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 large can of whole, stewed tomatoes
  • 4 tbsp. tomato paste
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 onion, large dice
  • 2 carrots, large dice
  • 2 tomatoes, large dice
  • 3 cloves of garlic, diced
  • 3 sprigs of fresh parsley
  • 2 tbsp. thyme leaves (fresh is best if you can)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup plain bread crumbs 

Heat your oven to 425 degrees.

Prep all your meat by slicing it and trimming as much fat and skin as you can from the chicken.  In a very hot large pot, add 1 tbsp. olive oil and brown your sausage and bacon.  Meanwhile, season your chicken with salt, pepper, and thyme.  Remove the sausage and bacon when it is crispy, and add the chicken, turning as it browns.  Remove the chicken from the pot and set the meat aside.
In the same pot, add the onion, carrots, and garlic with the parsley, bay leaves, nutmeg, and thyme.  Sweat the vegetables until the onion is translucent and add the diced tomato for a few additional minutes.  Re-introduce the meat to the pot, and stir in the tomato paste.  Allow to soften a bit before adding the white wine.  Reduce liquid to about half.
 Add the whole tomatoes with the juice, crushing them in your hands.  Also add the beans.  Fill the pot with stock until all the ingredients are submerged.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer about 20 minutes.  Stir occasionally until the cassoulet thickens up a bit and remove from the heat to allow it to thicken even more.
While waiting, mix the breadcrumbs in a bowl with some thyme, salt, pepper, and 1/2 tbsp. olive oil.  Mix to get a mealy texture.   Sprinkle this on top of the pot, and place in the oven to brown, about 10 minutes. 
There are many fine French bistros in Chicago, but my ultimate favorite is Le Bouchon. Garrett and I go there every year for our anniversary.  The best cassoulet I've had, though, would be at  Chez Moi.

1 comment:

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