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Cassoulet a la francaise

Cassoulet, the casserole’s elegant French cousin

What’s the most wonderful thing about fall?

Is it the chill in the air that calls for cozy sweaters, the longer evenings that mean more time with friends and wine, or the spectacular colors of the leaves? All of these, of course, but our favorite is the hearty autumn dishes that warm both the body and spirit.

Americans love casseroles, the perfect cold-weather food…but did you know that this Yankee classic is even better with a French twist? Cassoulet is a rich, aromatic casserole of beans, meat, celery and tomatoes. It takes its name from cassole, the cooking vessel in which it is prepared. From start to finish, cassoulet takes about 12 hours to prepare – though of course you can always order Maison Parisienne’s cassoulet to eat in or take out.

If you’re feeling ambitious, however, you can try making classic French cassoulet on your own. Most of that 12 hours is needed to soak the pound of haricots blancs (white beans) this recipe calls for. Once the beans are prepared, make an authentic bouquet garni of celery, thyme, bay leaf, cloves, parsley and peppercorns. Place this bouquet (tied in a cheesecloth) in the pot with the beans, 8 cups of cold water, beef broth, onion, tomato paste and 2 tablespoons of garlic. Simmer for one hour, then add tomatoes and your choice of meat. Traditional French recipes call for pork sausage as well as duck – not just the meat, but the skin and fat are essential to the texture and flavor of cassoulet. And Chicago, of course, is a city that loves it duck fat. Try it; you’ll be glad you did.

Serve with a fresh, crusty baguette to hungry guests after a brisk outdoor hike, or enjoy the leftovers curled up by a crackling fire. Bon appétit!

Photo: Phillip Capper, creative commons