In my sixth year of grade school, my French immersion class was set an assignment by the teacher to cook a dish, and make a presentation in the style of our very own cooking show.
We had to make our presentation entirely en francais, and our culinary efforts would be sampled by the rest of the class, and our teacher. While most of my classmates chose to present baked goods, I was determined to go another route, and present something slightly more ambitious. To prepare myself, I delved into the popular cooking programs on the local PBS stations, and I immediately latched on to Julia Child’s show. Her recipe for beef bourguignon was the exact sort of dish I was looking for; and since it was a French dish, I figured I wouldn’t have to do a bunch of translation- (no fool was I). My mother helpfully lent me her Julia Child cookbook, bought me the necessary ingredients; and I set to work at the stove. Several hours, (and many fiery conflagrations later), my masterpiece and accompanying presentation were ready.
The presentation went over well with my classmates, although I don’t think my teacher ever forgave me for using her desk top as a cutting board. I received a good mark, and accolades from my peers; (it didn’t translate into any dates though). The assignment also firmly cemented my love of cooking, a love which has carried through to this day.
What is the point of this tale of a sixth grade culinary novice? Well, it seems like French cuisine is the most intimidating style of cooking for the average cook. The history, and legacy of French gastronomical tradition has obscured the fact that, (at its heart), French cooking is based on simple, easy to prepare, peasant food. For an urban peasant like myself, that makes it worth trying.
January 9th is National Cassoulet Day (boy, they’re really pushing it with these celebrations days). What is cassoulet you ask? Why, only one of the tastiest casserole dishes the French have ever thought up! A traditional dish from the south France; cassoulet is a mixture of beans and meats, typically including duck confit, mutton, and sausage, that is slow cooked in a vessel called a cassole. Think of it as the best baked bean dish you’ll ever have in your life. For most of us however, duck confit, and flageolets (small french kidney beans)- can be a bit hard to come by. So I tried to make a recipe for a quick cassoulet, using readily available ingredients. I’ve subbed potatoes in for lamb or mutton, which keeps the dish nice and hearty. You can also use any type of casserole dish you want, just make sure it’s big enough to hold everything.
(Prep time: 10 minutes. Cook time: 1 hour. Serves 2-4)
- 1 medium onion, sliced radially
- 4-5 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 2 pints grape or cherry tomatoes
- 1 lb small mixed potatoes, quartered
- 2 tbsp fresh poultry herbs, finely minced
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 1/2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
- 2 whole bay leaves
- 1 lb fresh sausages in casings, (approx. 4-5)
- 1 540ml can white kidney beans, drained and rinsed
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit. In a large casserole dish, mix the onion, garlic, and grape tomatoes together. Drizzle the vegetables with the olive oil, then sprinkle the salt and pepper over everything. Toss the tomato mixture with a spoon to get everything coated with olive oil, add the herbs, and mix them in.
Add the bay leaves, and then lay the sausages on top of the vegetables. Score the sausages slightly with a small, sharp knife to allow the juices to escape. Place the casserole dish on the centre rack of the oven, and bake for 45 minutes. While your cassoulet is baking, feel free to pass the time in the typical French manner; by haughtily mocking American cinema, whilst smoking Gauloise cigarettes, and drinking an aperitif.
After 45 minutes, take the cassoulet out of the oven. Move the sausages to a separate plate, then stir the can of beans in with the tomato/potato mixture. Lay the sausages back on top of the bean mixture, with the uncooked-side facing up. Place the dish back in the oven, and bake for another 15 minutes. Pour yourself a glass of wine, toast your culinary magnificence, and resume your French affectations. (The beret might be over-doing it).
Remove your cassoulet from the oven after 15 minutes, and let it rest for 5 minutes. Look at that loveliness! The tomatoes and onions have released their juices, which have mingled with those from the sausages, to create the most wonderful broth you’ve ever wanted to slather your body in. Meanwhile, the potatoes and beans have become all soft and creamy, and utterly, utterly heavenly. (I guess this explains why everyone thinks the French are so smug.)
Make sure to serve your beautiful cassoulet with a good, crusty french baguette, so that you can mop up all of that delicious sauce! Or, serve over rice for a gluten-free option. You can also use a high quality meatless sausage for a vegan option. Now that you have the basic template, you can use any combination of vegetables, and meats, you desire.
I hope this dish will inspire you to try more french cooking. Remember, if a ham-fisted, awkward, slightly dorky tween can manage to make a classic French dish without burning down his house, or causing his teachers and classmates to come down with an acute case of food poisoning, so can you.