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Friday, December 18, 2009

Cassoulet On A Winters Day

It is winter on this Saturday in the northeastern United States, and today the earth is covered in a blanket of snow. Fog has settled in over the mountain ridge and the lightness of day is gone by three-thirty. The fire is anxiously burning in the wood stove, but the kitchen still carries a slight chill. It is a good time to turn on the oven and bake something aromatic and satisfying for dinner. It has been a productive day. I have managed to shovel the snow from the long brick walkway, pushed a wheelbarrow full of firewood across an acre of yard and stacked them on the front porch. I have written three pages of dialogue between two central characters in the novel I am attempting to write and found a bottle of 2001 Reserva, Marques de Caceres stored in the basement; a blood red Spanish wine perfect for my current mood.

I open the wine and set it aside to breathe while I see to my beans and vegetables. I have a pot of black beans simmering on the stove and have added a few diced carrots. Two winter leeks are cut into half moons and soak in a bowl of water to extract any residue of sand and dirt. Meanwhile, I mince the garlic and sauté three chicken sausages, each sliced in half lengthwise. I remove from the freezer fresh basil, rosemary and thyme harvested from my garden as the late summer days spilled into autumn. The herbal leaves were tenderly plucked from their stems and placed in bags and then into the freezer. Yesterday, before the snowfall, I wandered into my garden and found the rosemary still vital and alive lifting up through the snow. All else in the substantial plot had succumbed to the frost and freezing temperatures.

Rosemary, for remembrance, is a strong, powerful herb symbolizing loyalty and friendship. Hamlet's Ophelia offers rosemary to the memory of her father as she goes mad with grief and sorrow. Eventually she drowns her sad self, but I suspect she would have reconsidered had she smelled my kitchen just before the cassoulet emerged from the oven. If rosemary is the herb of remembrance than it stands to reason that our ancestors used it medicinally to improve the memory. It is also a carminative, meaning an herb that soothes the digestive tract, and will help to relieve the flatulence causing properties of the beans I am cooking. I have combined black turtle beans with leeks, garlic, bay leaf, basil, rosemary, and thyme, all cooked in a deep, rich olive oil that was first used to sauté the chicken sausage. I have then topped this mixture with a cornmeal crust to seal in the flavors and absorb any surface juice.

I remove the cassoulet from the oven and I am stunned by its perfection. The crust seems to float atop the beans, sausage and vegetables, simmering in a red ceramic cassoulet dish. The design of this cooking pot is one of perfection, with its oval form and five inch depth. I had soaked it right along with my beans, to ensure an even and faithful distribution of heat. With a pot like this, one could achieve culinary fame and fortune; perhaps ending ones days on QVC selling ceramic cassoulet dishes to those who will use them only to decorate their massive country style kitchens. Then again, those culinary wannabe's may be inspired enough to discover the true purpose of their lovely Tuscan knick-knack with this recipe.

I have already gone back for seconds! The rich broth and complex flavors call to my very heart. The cornmeal crust is just thick enough to cushion the strength of the beans and sausage simmering for an hour in miso, herbs and kudzu root. The miso is sweet mellow white and the kudzu brings some thickness to the water used to cook the beans and carrots. I justify this gluttony with the memory of plowing through four inches of snow pushing a wheelbarrow filled with old logs; plus the fact that it tastes so good paired with the Marques de Caceres. I am content to end my day of winter labor indulging my senses before plunging into a week of promise.

For those of you reluctant chefs or for those who think this recipe will take to long to prepare, consider that you are presently home bound by the snow with nowhere to go and little to do that can bring you such pleasure. Rather than attempt to complete the recipe in one go, do a little at a time as you move through the kitchen in the course of your afternoon. In this way the whole process of preparing your evening meal will receive the time and respect it deserves, slowly cooked with love and anticipation and savored on a cold winters night in front of a roaring fire.

Black Bean and Sausage Cassoulet
1 1/2 cups dried black beans
3 cups water
2 carrots, halved and chopped
3 Italian chicken sausages
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
2 leeks, white part, chopped in half moons
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 leaves fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried
1 stalk fresh rosemary
3 stems fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 small bay leaves
1 tsp. sea salt
2 Tbs. mellow white miso
1 Tbs. kudzu root
½ tsp. sea salt

½ cup corn meal
2/3 cups spelt (or whole wheat) flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese or soy parmesan
2/3 cup non-dairy or dairy milk
2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 egg or egg replacer

1. Once you have soaked the beans and chopped the carrots, drain the beans and return to the pot with 4 cups water and the chopped carrots. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until tender, about 40 minutes.
2. While the beans are cooking chop and soak the leeks, mince the garlic and gather your herbs together. Slice the chicken sausage lengthwise; heat the oil in a heavy skillet and sauté the sausage until browned on both sides. Remove to a plate.
3. Add the strained leeks to the oil and cook until tender, then add the garlic and herbs, stirring well to combine.
4. Remove a cup of cooking liquid from the beans and set aside. Add the leek and herb mixture to the beans then pour the bean liquid into the skillet to collect any remaining oil and herbs. Return this liquid to the bean mixture and stir well.
5. Soak the cassoulet pot for 15 minutes in water, drain and have the pan warmed and ready, then pour the black bean mixture into the pot. Cover and place into a pre-heated 375-degree oven and cook for 30 minutes. While the beans are cooking prepare the top crust.
6. In a medium size bowl combine the cornmeal, flour, Romano cheese, baking powder and sea salt. Whisk together the milk, oil and egg and stir it into the flour mixture, combining well. Set aside.
7. Dissolve the miso and kudzu in a half cup of water.
8. When the beans are done remove from oven and uncover carefully. Stir in the miso/kudzu mixture and a half-teaspoon of sea salt. Slowly pour the cornmeal mixture over the top of the black beans and return, uncovered, to the oven. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and allow to bake for another 30 minutes or until the crust is cooked.
9. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.

I suggest you invite some friends over so you don't end up eating it all at one sitting.

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