If you’ve ever spent any winter time in France, you’ve undoubtedly indulged in what I consider the ultimate comfort food of the French cassoulet.
For those of you who haven’t had cassoulet, I hesitate to describe it as a baked white bean dish. Yes, white beans are the main ingredient, but how the French manage to infuse beans with such incredible flavour and richness simply amazes. A proper cassoulet is loaded with fatty sausage, pork, duck fat, garlic, onion and salty-silky duck confit. The dish takes a full day to prepare, as the flavours are layered in and cooked low and slow.
All of which is to say, cassoulet is no health food. But if you are in France, you must try it, guilt-free, as it is intended to be savored.
But back home in regular life, I wanted to create a version that evoked at least some of that comfort, without quite so much heft. And, since white beans are affordable and incredibly healthy full of protein and fiber I thought it was worth the effort to explore. Was I able to capture the wintery lusciousness of a true French cassoulet for a fraction of the calories, fat and salt? Nope.
But the result was still pretty darned delicious in its own right, and a close enough cousin to scratch the itch.
The secret lies in roasting the garlic (I actually do a quick-roast microwave cheat) and slow-cooking the onions, which lends a sweetness that mimics some of the roundness of the (now-missing) duck fat. Smoked paprika boosts the smokiness of thick-cut bacon, so the whole dish needs only a couple slices. Chicken thighs impart richness and cubes of pork tenderloin add meaty heft.
And my completely unconventional add? Soy chorizo, because it gives depth of flavour and a fatty mouth-feel for about a third the fat of traditional sausage. And because it’s so flavourful, I need a lot less to make an impact.
Enjoy this almost-cassoulet.
Start to finish: 2 hours (1 hour active)
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, patted dry
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
5 cloves garlic
2 slices thick-cut bacon, cut into small lardons
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound pork tenderloin, cubed and patted dry
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 medium carrots, finely chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
4 ounces soy chorizo, casing removed
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons herbes de Provence
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 to 3/4 cup beef stock
3 cups cooked Navy beans (rinsed if canned)
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 cup seasoned panko breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper the chicken thighs, then set aside.
Place the peeled cloves of garlic and 2 tablespoons of water in a glass measuring cup. Cover with plastic wrap (allowing a steam vent), and microwave for 1 minute, or until the garlic is fragrant and softened a little. Set aside to cool.
Meanwhile, in a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the bacon and cook until crispy. Remove the bacon from the pan and set aside, leaving the fat in the pan. Add the pork tenderloin cubes and brown just until golden on all sides, about 3 minutes. Remove the pork from the pan and set aside. Add the chicken thighs and brown until golden all over, about 10 minutes total, then remove and set aside.
If there is not enough fat still in the Dutch oven, add another tablespoon. Add the onions and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to low and continue cooking until the onions are nicely caramelized, about another 10 minutes.
Heat the oven to 350 F.
Increase the heat under the Dutch oven to medium-high. Add the celery and carrots and cook for an additional 5 minutes. Chop the garlic and add it along with the tomato, soy chorizo, smoked paprika and herbes de Provence, then cook until very fragrant and the tomatoes have softened, about 5 minutes.
Increase the heat to high and deglaze the pan with the wine and beef stock, allowing it to bubble and reduce for 3 minutes. Return the bacon and pork to the pan, then add the beans and bay leaves and stir to combine. Nestle the chicken (and any juices) into the beans, then cover the pan and bake for 30 minutes.
In a small bowl, toss the butter and breadcrumbs. Remove the cassoulet from the oven, uncover, sprinkle with the breadcrumbs, then return to the oven and cook, uncovered, for another 20 minutes. Let cool a little before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 460 calories; 140 calories from fat (30 per cent of total calories); 16 g fat (4 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 95 mg cholesterol; 700 mg sodium; 38 g carbohydrate; 12 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 34 g protein.
Food Network star Melissa d’Arabian is an expert on healthy eating on a budget. She is the author of the cookbook, “Supermarket Healthy.” http://www.melissadarabian.net