For me, cassoulet is the epitome of French county cooking: white beans, olive oil, garlic, and meat (traditionally duck confit). And it’s true that I first tried it–and first tried cooking it–while living in France. However, it’s an incredible easy dish to make your own and use up whatever leftover meat you have in the fridge. I think the cassoulet is a little bit like chili or BBQ: every family (or region, or village) has their own particular style that they swear is best. And for a family, I like to go back to the roots of this dish and make it with leftovers appealing to young kids. Like chicken.
My version is simple, fast (much faster than Mark Bittman’s New York Times version), and cooked mostly on the stovetop. I like this version because it’s not too meat heavy, and the meat is lean, and it sneaks in carrots. Like I said, cooking with kids. It’s often a game of hide the vegetables!
- 2 cups dried white beans. Truly, use any old type of white beans. I’ve used cannellini, great northern, navy (a quick primer on white beans)…they all are fine.
- 1 cup carrots, chopped into bite size pieces
- 1 cup celery, also bite sized
- olive oil, for sauteing
- water (or stock, if you have some you want to use up)
- 1 cup leftover chicken, cooked and cut into bite-size pieces (mine came from a Peruvian chicken place, so it was pre-seasoned and everything)
- 1 large roll (half a baguette, whatever bread you have on hand) for the crumb topping
- 2 heaping tablespoons of tomato paste
Boil the beans in a pot, with water about an inch or so over the top of the beans. After they boil for about 5 minutes, turn the heat off and let them sit for 1 hour. (Or, follow the directions for soaking on the side of the bag). This can be done in advance. You can also used canned beans, but then you have to shorten all the cooking times, and evidently canned beans really aren’t as good for you.
While they are soaking, dice carrots and onion. Get your pot out–I use a Dutch oven (enameled cast iron pot), but any pot with a lid that can be used on the stovetop as well as in the oven will do nicely. Cook the carrots in about a 1/4 cup of olive oil for 4-5 minutes, and then add the onions and cook for another 4-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and a few tablespoons of water; stir until well mixed. Don’t let the paste burn! It happens quickly. So I hear, anyway.
Add the beans (drained), salt, a bay leaf if you’d like, and enough hot water to cover the beans. Cover the pot and cook for 30-45 minutes over low heat, checking to see how cooked the beans are, adding water if needed. When they are pretty well cooked, add the diced chicken.
This is what it will look like:
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 250 degrees, and break the bread into small pieces. Spread on a jelly roll pan (a baking sheet), spray with cooking spray or drizzle with oil, sprinkle some salt and pepper, and toast the bread for about 3 minutes. Toss the crumbs, spray and sprinkle some more, and toast another 3 minutes. Skip this step if you aren’t going to do the crumb topping.
Finally, turn off the heat under the pot, and mash some of the beans. You can be fancy and separate out half the beans to mash them up and then add them back to the pot, but I generally just get out the potato masher and give a few good goes (mashes?) in the cooking pot.
You can stop here, serve, and it will be good. As long as you’ve checked to make sure the beans are totally cooked. If you have an extra 30 minutes, and some bread going stale sitting around (because this is the origin of a lot of bread-y French dishes–baguettes go stale quite quickly, so the only thing to do is break the baguettes into pieces and cook them with some liquid to soften them up and make them palatable again. Think French Onion Soup. Or French Toast, know to the French as Pain Perdu, or Lost Bread. Or, this bread crumb topping!) then continue on…
Spread the bread crumbs over the top, and replace the lid. Slide the whole pot into the oven, and bake for maybe 30 minutes, still at 250 degrees. I usually check halfway through and sprinkle some hot water over everything so that it doesn’t get dried out. If your bean mix was watery enough, though, all you have to do it poke at it some and the watery sauce will break through the crust that is forming to soften the bread. This is what traditionalists do. Other people drizzle a little melted butter to prevent the bread from getting too hard. So many choices!
I serve mine with rice, because my husband thinks a meal isn’t complete without rice. A nice baguette would be good as well. Or, overload on carbs and have both rice and bread! Personally, I just eat the cassoulet as-is. This pot made enough for 6 large servings, so if your family isn’t particularly bean-y, then you’ll have plenty for 2 meals. The flavors continue to improve in the fridge, I think, so this is quite tasty heated up the next day. I would microwave for a few minutes and then pop it in the over to perk up the bread topping, but if you are oven-less then the microwave alone is just fine.