Monday, August 26, 2013

Cassoulet for Book Club

by Ann
No, this isn't cassoulet.
We always start out with snacks and I wanted to show my dear friend Teri that I am enjoying the cheese board slate that she gave me as a gift.  It comes with chalk to identify what is being served.  Cute!
Most of the novels I read discuss food at some point or another.  Maybe that says something about the books I choose, which was certainly the case for Hotel Pastis, my pick for our August book club read. Figuring out the food for the book club meeting is the responsibility of the person hosting that month.  When possible, we try to match the theme of the food to the book, which was very "doable" for this book considering a description on the back cover reads that the book is "Slyly funny and overflowing with sensuous descriptions of the good life. Hotel Pastis is the literary equivalent of a four-star restaurant."

It was a fun read that allowed us to extend the summer vacation concept just a little bit further before the school year started back up.  The "good life" described in the book included lots of drinking, eating, and smoking.  I guess I'll forgive them the smoking -- it's set in Paris and was written in 1993 -- hard to believe that's twenty years ago now!  I digress -- back to the eating and drinking, and this post.

First, the drinking -- The fictional hotel was named Pastis, after a popular French anise flavored liquor that gets its strong flavor from licorice root.  It is part of the family of Mediterranean anise liquors including the more well known Sambuca and ouzo.  It is typically served with still mineral water, 4 or 5 parts water to 1 part liquor.  Naturally, we had to try it!  I love black licorice, so found in tasty, as did all but one of the book club friends.  The characters also drank lots of wine, which gave me a great excuse to go to the largest wine store in our area and get a great rose, white, and red from Provence for us all to try.  
Only using one ounce for each glass left me with a lot of Pastis.  Perhaps I'll come up with a recipe to use more of it up for a future post...
Now for the eating -- What to make for dinner?  At Hotel Pastis there was a wonderful French chef whipping up dishes beyond my level of expertise, and many of which sounded too fancy for my tastes.  The love-interest in the book prepared a French cassoulet for dinner towards the beginning of the story, so I decided to figure out how to make cassoulet.

As I always do now, my first source of information is the Internet.  From my research I was not surprised to find that cassoulet is a French casserole that always has multiple pork ingredients, white beans, herbs, garlic, and onions.  The authentic recipes called for duck confit, duck leg meat, lamb, and/or mutton.  Yikes!  When I went to our high-end grocery store looking for duck products, there was no confit, and a small package of frozen duck legs was $10, so my thrifty alter-ego took over and I bought some boneless skinless chicken thighs instead. I am still learning about confit, and so far have gathered that it refers to a a preparation method for a very rich (read lots of fat) poultry cooking technique.

I also found cassoulet recipes in my cookbook collection including Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and one of my Frugal Gourmet cookbooks.  Bottom line -- the recipe I put together is a combination from about five or six sources.  As I did my research I kept coming across a reference to cassoulet being the predecessor to "pork and beans," but believe me -- this has no connection to the U.S. version of sweet, syrupy pork and beans that come out of a can.

Soak the beans overnight.  Drain off the water and replace with enough fresh water to cover the beans. In a dutch oven, saute half of the onions, bell pepper, garlic, and carrots until the onions are translucent (5-10 minutes).  Add the beans and two of smoked ham hocks to simmer covered until beans become tender (about an hour and a half).
Lots of meat goes into this dish -- most of it pork.  
Pork products include sweet sausage, pork chops, ham hocks, and pancetta (not pictured).  Additionally, I added 3 boneless skinless chicken thighs in lieu of the duck.
Browning the sausage with the pancetta will render fat which imparts lots of flavor (and calories...)
Yikes!  That's a lot of meat!  Once the pancetta renders its fat, add the pork cubes and chicken to brown.
Create a bouquet garni of herbs - I used oregano, thyme and bay leaves.  I could have just tied them together with the kitchen string, but went a step further to put them in cheesecloth, which probably wasn't necessary.  You just need to be able to fish them out before serving.
After the beans have cooked, remove the ham hocks and separate the usable meat from the bones and gristle.  There won't be much meat - the smokey flavor has imparted to the beans, which is the purpose for the hocks.
The remaining half of the chopped vegetables need to be sauteed until tender.  I had to remove the browned meat to make room in the pan to get them tender enough to add to the crock pot.

Add the beans, meats, and remaining ingredients and simmer until flavors are developed. I did mine in the crock pot because of timing and the fact that I did not want the oven on in the middle of the summer for an extended period of time. Most of the recipes that I looked at suggested cooking in the oven for a couple of hours at a relatively low temperature (325 degrees).  

If you use the crock-pot method, don't cook the beans until they are tender the when simmering with the ham hocks, or the remaining cooking time in the crock pot will result in bean mush.

To finish off, pour mixture into a casserole dish and top with bread crumbs drizzled with a bit of butter.  Cook at a high temperature (400 degrees) until a golden crust has formed (about 15-20 minutes).

How perfect is this casserole dish that my sister brought back from France as a gift?  Thanks, Linda!
1 ½ c dry great northern beans
¼ c olive oil
10 cloves of garlic, smashed
2 onions, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 large ham hocks
5 oz. pancetta, chopped
2 medium-large pork chops, cut into 1” cubes
3 links Italian sausage
3 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1” cubes

4 sprigs of oregano
4 sprigs of thyme
3 bay leaves
1 c whole peeled canned tomatoes
1 c white wine
1 6 oz can tomato paste
2 c chicken or beef broth
2 c bread crumbs
1/3 c chopped parsley
¼ c melted butter

  • Soak beans in a four quart bowl overnight.Next day: 
  • Heat 2 T olive oil in large Dutch oven over medium high heat.  Add half of the garlic, bell pepper, onions, and carrots and cook until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  Add ham hocks along with beans and their water and boil.  Reduce heat and simmer until beans begin to get tender, about 1 ½ hours.
  • Once beans are beginning to become tender, transfer ham hocks to plate, let cool.  Pull off the meat, discard the skin, bone and gristle.  Chop meat, add to beans, set aside.
  • Heat 2 T of oil in another large pot with the pancetta over medium-high heat until fat is rendered.  Add pork, sausage and chicken thighs to brown for 8 minutes.  Add remaining garlic, bell pepper, onions, and carrots; cook until lightly browned, another 10 minutes.  Tie the oregano, thyme, and bay leaves in cheesecloth to create a bouquet garni; add to the tomatoes.  Cook until tomato liquid begins to thicken, 8-10 minutes. Add wine, reduce by half.  Add broth; boil. 
  • In crock pot combine beans, broth, and meat mixture.  Cook on medium for 4-5 hours.
  • Transfer to baking casserole.  Top with bread crumbs, drizzled with butter.  Cook uncovered at 400° until crust is golden.

Congratulations if you have gotten through all of the text in this post!  I know that my blogging partners would say this was WAY too wordy, and I agree.  With that said, there is an awful lot of detail to preparing this dish.  Is it worth it?  I'm not 100% convinced that I would make it again, but it was the perfect dish to match up with the book.  If you want a printable version of the recipe, hopefully this link with get you to it.  Print recipe!


  1. book clubs are so much fun, that looks delish

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