Cassoulet is the dish that defines the cuisine of Toulouse, a city in southwestern France. My cassoulet, inspired by France but made for America, is richly flavored but not at all rich. The beans are as creamy as those of the original, but the deep cooked-into-the-beans flavor comes from generously cut vegetables, fresh herbs and ample amounts of garlic. And the crust, the final touch on any cassoulet, is garlicky and golden — just as it should be.
The night before you want to make the cassoulet, put the dried beans in a pot with enough cold water to cover them by at least an inch. Let the beans soak overnight in the refrigerator, then rinse and drain them. (Or, if you're in a rush--or you haven't planned far enough in advance--bring the water with the beans to a boil, boil for 2 minutes, pull the pot from the heat, and soak the beans for an hour. Rinse the beans under cold water and drain.)
Warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a small saute pan or skillet over medium heat. When it's hot, add the onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until the onion and garlic are tender but not colored, about 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and, when it's incorporated evenly, add the diced tomato; pull the pan from the heat and set aside.
Put the beans in a Dutch oven or large casserole. Pour in the stock and bring to the boil. Add the celery, carrots, turnips, fennel, split tomato, and the bouquet garni. Cut a parchment paper circle to fit inside the pot (see Glossary, page 369) and press the paper gently against the ingredients. Lower the heat so that the liquid bubbles at a steady simmer, and cook, stirring now and then, until the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Season the casserole with salt and pepper shortly before the beans are cooked through. When the beans are done, pull the pot from the heat and remove and discard the bouquet garni and whatever is left of the tomato. Drain the liquid from the pot into a pitcher and keep close at hand. Working gently, transfer the vegetables to a bowl.
Spoon the beans into a baking dish--a pottery casserole would be perfect--and stir in the onion-tomato paste mixture along with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add enough of the reserved cooking liquid to just cover the beans. Top with the vegetables and moisten with more of the cooking liquid. Reserve the remaining liquid if you are going to reheat the cassoulet. (The cassoulet can be made up to this point a day in advance, cooled, and stored tightly covered in the refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature, then reheat it for about 1 hour in a 350 degree F. oven, adding some of the reserved cooking liquid if the casserole seems dry. Fifteen minutes before the cassoulet's ready, put on the crust and turn up the oven temperature, as directed below.)
The Crust: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Toss together the bread crumbs, garlic, and parsley and stir in the melted butter. Spread the mixture evenly over the cassoulet and slide the casserole into the oven. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the crumbs are golden brown and crusty.
To Serve: Bring the casserole to the table and serve immediately, spooning crust, vegetables, and beans into warm soup plates.
To Drink: A brawny white wine, such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Recipe courtesy of Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud Cookbook. Published by Scribner, 1999