14th December 2001
I'm hosting this recipe for my friend Jane MacDonald <email@example.com> because the site where it was published only holds things for one month. A waste, I'm sure you'll agree.
Our house has this tendency to fill up with people during the holidays. Sometimes we have parties; sometimes they just show, probably because they like my husband. Or, just possibly, they come because they like my cassoulet.
We do our gift-giving on Christmas Eve, more than likely because Bob's grandfather used to have to work on Christmas morning - he was an editor for an afternoon newspaper, and they put out papers no matter whether it's Christmas or not. So now it's a family tradition. We have the big Christmas celebration, with the groaning board that takes hours to get ready, at my in-laws' house the next day. Before we had kids, we started asking people over who were for some reason alone on Christmas Eve, and usually two or three of them came, so we still do that. We invite the pastor to drop by, and he does. And we feed these people.
No way I'm going to stage a sitdown dinner for so many at such a busy time, so I finally came up with the simplest buffet you ever saw. Everybody likes it so much I do it at least twice a year, and nobody has admitted gettiing tired of it. It's made up of two dishes - a cassoulet and a salad. There's bread, too, and candy is sitting around if they want dessert.
The advantage of this is that leftover cassoulet can be kept in the refrigerator for several days; you can make it ahead, too, and just heat it up in the microwave. I think it's even better the second day. Salad you can make in a hurry, and you have a quick meal. Incidentally, cassoulet is full of grease - cholesterol haters must avoid it. It doesn't taste greasy because the beans soak up the grease, I guess, and we figure a meal that's not fat-free once in a while is not going to kill anybody. This is easier to make than it may look, but it takes about an hour, plus whatever more time it takes for the beans to cook.
Here's how to do the whole thing:
Serves six very hungry or eight to ten normal people. Keeps in the refrigerator for several days. Double the recipe for double the fun.
Soak beans overnight. Pour off water; put fresh water in to cover and a little more. Cook uncovered at not quite boiling until nearly cooked. Might take two hours or more, but check them fairly frequently. You might have to add some water, but not more than enough to make sure the beans are covered.
Heat the oven to 250 degrees F.
Cut bacon strips into squares; separate and put in good-sized skillet.
Slice onions (less than 1/4-inch slices), add to skillet. Fry bacon and onions together on medium-low heat, stirring frequently to keep from sticking, until so soft they're almost melted,
Meanwhile, cut slices of ham about 1/4-inch thick, then cut those into 1/2-inch squares until you have about two cups.
Slice Italian sausages down the center lengthwise, chop into 1/2-inch pieces.
Cut a 16-oz. roll of breakfast sausage in half. Slice one half of the sausage into 1/2-inch rounds (easier to do if you take the whole thing out of the plastic case before slicing), make into small balls - they don't have to be neat. Eat the other half some other time; you can freeze it.
Fry both kinds of sausage at the same time on medium-low heat in a different pan until a little brown. You'll probably have to leave the Italian sausages in a little longer than the breakfast sausage.
Peel and crush garlic cloves.
Cut the tomatoes into smallish pieces, without the juice; don't crush them, just pull them out and cut them up. Since this is usually a winter dish, canned are better than tasteless fresh tomatoes imported from someplace you've never heard of.
When bacon and onions are just beginning to show brown on the edges, add the crushed garlic, mix it in and cook a couple more minutes. Then add 2 cups of stock. Add the tomatoes. Add the seasoning - don't put in too much salt, or you'll be sorry. Stir, cover, and simmer at least 20 minutes.
Rub cooking pot with garlic.
Pick the bacon squares out of the skillet (takes a while) and put them in the bottom of the pot. Put the pieces of ham and sausages in the pot. Stir them so the meat is all mixed up.
Fry up 1/4 lb. of salt pork. Put the juices from that in the stock skillet. They'll look burnt and ugly, but do it anyhow. Don't put in the fried salt pork; throw it away. Don't take a bite of it either, for, if you do, your mouth will be very salty for half an hour. I tried it.
Put the beans on top of the meat in the pot. Pour the stock mixture from the skillet over the top of the beans. Add enough plain stock to not quite cover the beans. If you find you don't have enough stock, use water - no big deal. Bring the pot to just boiling on the stove top, and turn down the heat as soon as it boils.
Put a layer of bread crumbs on top - don't stint. Too much is better than too little, but don't completely cover the thing.
Put the pot in the oven and cook uncovered about 45 minutes or an hour. Just watch to see that the bread crumbs don't start turning black. They should be crisp, not burnt.
When you serve this, make salt available, but tell people to taste it before they salt it. The amount of salt in ham and sausages varies, so sometimes a little salt enhances flavor. Beano works; it's not 100 percent efficient, but it helps.
Now make a huge salad to serve with this. In case you were raised to think a quarter of a head of iceberg lettuce with Thousand Island dressing on it is a salad, let me inform you that you're wrong.
Here's how you make a salad. Buy the following:
If you want, some kind of mix like Good Seasons Italian rather than salt and pepper, but you don't really need it. Don't overdo the salt and pepper either.
Mix oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and water and shake. Do NOT use any more vinegar than this. If you make this in one of those measuring salad bottles they give you, cut the amount of vinegar and add more water. Salad dressing is not supposed to take your head off - it's supposed to have a little tang, not to be so sour everybody flinches when they taste it.
You now have salad dresisng. Put aside.
Take one large lettuce leaf per consumer, wash it, shake it and tear, do not cut, it into pieces about an inch square - they don't have to be neat. Don't worry if the lettuce is still damp. Tear off six slightly smaller pieces of radiccio. Slice radishes into rounds less than 1/8-inch thick, but not much thinner than that. Cut off broccoli floret close to the top, then break floret into small pieces, not more than 3/4 inch across. Count two small pieces per guest. Do the same with the cauliflower. Dump all this stuff into a bowl and mix. Now pour on, say, one tablespoon of salad dressing per guest. Mix the whole thing. Toast the pine nuts just a little, making sure they don't start to burn, and scatter a lot of them across the top - don't stint. They're expensive, but worth it.
Now you have a salad.
If you want each guest's salad to look really good, make each one on a separate salad plate, and don't mix the ingredients, just put them on one at a time. For a good-sized gang, it's better to make a big bowl and let them dig out however much they want themselves.
(In case you want to make this salad for some other meal, just vary the ingredients a bit. Add small pieces of tomato, for example, if there's no tomato-flavored dish on the menu. Other kinds of greens work, too - arugula, for example, or a little water cress.)
Warm French bread, not toasted, goes well with this meal.
Note: French people use goose, or preserved goose, in this recipe instead of ham. I don't like goose, and I think ham makes a better cassoulet anyhow. I suppose you could use duck, turkey or chicken, too. If you use poultry instead of ham, you'll need a little more salt and a little more grease; use olive oil. The main thing is to make your cassoulet once, then do it again and try something different if you want. This is a peasant dish, which means put in anything you happen to have that tastes good. After a few tries you'll know what you like best. I'm thinking of doubling the breakfast sausage next time and cutting out the Italian sausage.
I developed this recipe over time, changing it often, starting from Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking (NY; Penguin, 1960).