Whatever you call it, the centerpiece of this winter menu — a slow-cooked dish of lamb and beans — is not fast food.
In one pot, you’ll simmer lamb shanks to obtain succulent meat and a savory broth. In another, you’ll cook beans. Then, you’ll combine them and bake them twice. If you take your time, which you should, it will take two to three days, but the result is a dish of deep, enchanting flavor.
While it’s similar, it’s not a full-blown, traditional cassoulet, the regional specialty of the French southwest, chock-full of sausages, pork belly and duck confit. Some will say it’s not a cassoulet at all, but it is nonetheless very satisfying. So I wondered: Without all of the extra ingredients, could it still bear the name cassoulet — or simply be called cassoulet-ish?
I got in touch with Kate Hill, an American who has lived in cassoulet country for decades and knows southwestern French cuisine like the back of her hand. She’s written several cookbooks, including one called “Cassoulet: A French Obsession.” Was there, I asked, a cassoulet made with lamb only?
Her response was yes. Called cassolette d’agneau, it’s something you might find as a daily special in a small village routier, or roadside restaurant. (The earthenware cooking vessel typical for any cassoulet-type recipe is called a cassole, which is somewhat deeper than a standard gratin dish.)
But what’s in a name? The most important thing is that you use a key cassoulet technique: moistening the beans with just enough broth, which ensures that all the flavor is concentrated as the beans bake. At the end, the beans should be soft, juicy and a little sticky, with an exquisite complexity.
With such a hearty main, there’s no room for much more on the menu. Start the meal by nibbling on radishes and olives, perhaps some thinly sliced saucisson. A garlicky green salad would be a fine accompaniment. But I wanted a different salad, something seasonal and refreshing, so I looked to persimmons and pomegranates, my favorite colorful fall and winter fruit. Be sure to use squat Fuyu persimmons, which are delicious raw, and not the pointy Hachiya type, which must be fully soft and ripe to be palatable. To serve this salad as a first course, you may add arugula or radicchio leaves. Or, if serving it as an accompaniment, just garnish with mint.
Baked apples are a humble dessert, but these have a certain elegance. Stuffed with dried apricots and raisins, glazed with honey and apricot jam, they can be served warm or at room temperature with a dab of crème fraîche. These, by the way, can also be baked a day or two in advance.
With your cassoulet in the oven, a fire in the hearth and a good bottle of red wine, a fine winter feast is at hand. Take it slow.
Recipes: Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad | Cassoulet-Style Lamb Shanks and Beans | Baked Apples With Honey and Apricot