Beating the wind with bacon and beans

My favorite savory dish of the winter season is easily (after butterscotch and chocolate pudding) Cassoulet. This white bean and three-protein stew of sorts is meant to keep you warm despite the frigid blows of Provence’s Mistral winds and delivers on its promise. The meats are cooked over a bed of white beans which, towards the end of the cooking process, are baked uncovered until the legumes crisp up and caramelize over rendered pork fat. So yeah. I love that part.

The Mistral winds that meander through the mountains of the Luberon region are said to carry mystical energy and are powerful enough to knock the fat off your bones if you haven’t thickened up for the season. The auberge my grandparents ran in the area was a thousand-year-old fortress of stone meant to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter, but the sauna-like summers turned into harsh, snowy winters with one strong gust. The thick walls kept the wind out but stayed ice cold, a reminder whenever you brushed past them in the narrow staircases. The best place to be from November through March was down in the tight kitchen that serviced the bar and restaurant, churning out Cassoulet, crackling boar and chocolate cake. From the stove, I could look out the window to the street and giggle at my father and his cold breath running from the heated car to service door with cases of celery root, apples and cheeses from our purveyors. Winter is best enjoyed from the comforts of a sweaty restaurant kitchen, spare the trips down to the cave for the saucisson and wine bottles.

On an unseasonably* cold evening like tonight, and without the necessary sausage and chicken legs required for a proper Cassoulet, we dug out the last chunk of pork belly from the fridge, a head of cauliflower, couple slices of sourdough, a bunch kale that was on its last leg and a few cups of white beans I’d cooked for a citrus bean salad that never came to fruition. We rendered, roasted and tossed up the best version of a Cassoulet that an unlikely group of ingredients could produce while keeping the one-pot ease of the recipe and nearly-burnt beans that make this dish so darn perfect. Make this however you want with whatever vegetables and proteins you have lying around, but keep a few of these rules to go by:

  1. Use pork. The fat you render in the first step is the key to building flavor in this dish.
  2. White beans are the best. You can use a small, mild bean like a cranberry bean, but stick to Great Northern, Cannellini, Navy beans or Flageolet. We cook these first, but canned beans that you’ve rinsed will do in a pinch.
  3. Play with your vegetables. Got brisket? Some leftover caramelized onions? Mustard greens?Go! How about roasted acorn squash? Pay attention to the firmness of your already-cooked vegetables and add these in only at the last minute to keep them from turning to mush.
  4. If using kale, you’ll enjoy our trick for crisping it up in the oven- it’ll give the dish more texture and make the love/hate relationship with the greens more comfortable.
  5. Use good bread. A stale whole grain loaf of crusty bread is perfect. Leave a few piece to sop up the fat and crackling from the pan.

*Yes, we’re in Los Angeles. Yes, it’s 50F, and yes, we’ve become lightweights. I blame the ocean air.