You can't get more authentic southwest France than cassoulet, but the classic version--with duck confit, sausage, and various iterations of pork--takes so long to make I had no hope of introducing it to my food appreciation classes. Plus, duck confit is not a standard item at our local grocery. But our friend Kate Hill, who lives and cooks in Gascony, urged us to try a faux version, a simple pork and beans stew. That brought to mindmy own short-cut cassoulet, an improvisation using a particularly meaty variety of lima bean we grew in the garden.
Put it all together and you get the quick cassoulet we made in our classes this week. You can make it even quicker if you use canned beans. But I made of point of searching the bulk aisle at Whole Foods for a dried cannellini bean (or white kidney bean) that I prepared ahead. Add some bacon and lamb and you're almost home.
I recommend starting with dried beans for flavor and texture, which means beginning your cassouleta day ahead. You'll need 2 cups of cooked beans, which translates as somewhat less than 1 cup of dried beans. Soak these overnight in plenty of water, then cook until just tender in a pot of water with 1 onion, cut into quarters, and 1 bunch thyme plus 1 bay leaf tied in a bundle. Set aside.
Cut 2 thick strips of smokey bacon into 1/4-inch strips and saute these in a heavy skillet until almost crisp. Remove the bacon and in the rendered fat brown 4 ounces lamb stew meat, cut into medium dice and seasoned with salt and pepper. Place the bacon and lamb in a mixing bowl along with any pan juices.
In the same skillet, saute in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or bacon grease) 1/2 medium onion cut into small dice. When the onion begins to soften, add 2 cloves garlic, chopped fine. Cook until onion begins to brown. Scrape onion and garlic into mixing bowl with meat. Add 2 cups cooked beans and 1/2 14-0unce can diced tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste and toss well.
Pour the cassoulet mix into a small casserole. Pour in just enough chicken stock to rise to the top of the bean mix, then top with fresh bread crumbs. For these, I purchased a large, round loaf of pain au Levain at Whole Foods, but any sturdy, country-style bread would do. We used three thick slices, separating the bread from the crust and cutting it into small pieces. The kids ate the crust, and the crumbs we toasted lightly in a 350 degree oven, or just until they were dry. (Please, do not use canned bread crumbs for this.)
Cover the casserole with foil and place in a 350-degree oven for about 1 1/2 hours, or until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Remove the foil and use a spoon or spatula to mix the bread crumbs into the bean mix. Return casserole to the oven and bake another 20 minutes, or until a new crust begins to form.
I have to say, some kids were put off by the look of this rustic stew. Maybe they just don't like beans. But the others loved it. And why not? The flavors will take you all the way to Toulouse.