Readers who know me as a purist may be surprised to see my version of the famous gut-buster, cassoulet. This bean and meat casserole from southwestern France is brimming with flavor (thanks to loads of fatty pork and duck confit), but it also takes a good amount of time to make. In my catering days, I made mountains of cassoulet, and at the request of clients, learned how to reduce its heft while keeping every drop of flavor. My chicken version has become one of my most reliable dishes for a holiday buffet--all you need is a green salad and some crusty bread, and you are in business. For a completely French Christmas menu with an outstanding Francophile dessert, serve the bûche de Noël. I haven't quite decided on my holiday menu yet, but the more I write about this combination, the better it sounds.
Makes 12 to 16 servings
Make Ahead: The cassoulet can be made up to 1 day ahead (without the bread crumb topping.)
The cassoulet looks especially good when baked and served from a large 7- to 8-quart Le Creuset. My trusty enameled cast-iron cooker has been with me for decades, as it is one of my most used cooking utensils. Otherwise, divide the the cassoulet between two standard 4-to 5-quart casseroles.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes (see Note)
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoons dried sage
1 teaspoon dried oregano
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry vermouth or white wine
One 28-ounce can tomatoes in juice, chopped, juices reserved
2 cups Homemade Chicken Broth (page 000), or use reduced-sodium canned broth
1 bay leaf
1 1/2 pounds pork or turkey sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
2 medium onions, chopped
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
Six 15- to 19-ounce cans cannellini (white kidney) beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350°F.
2. In a very large (7- to 8-quart) Dutch oven, preferably enameled cast iron, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat. In batches without crowding, cook the chicken thighs, turning occasionally, until browned lightly on all sides, about 10 minutes, adding more oil as needed. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the browned chicken to a platter.
3. Return the browned chicken to the Dutch oven. Season with the thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, salt, and pepper, and mix well. Add the vermouth and bring to a boil, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Add the tomatoes with their juices, the stock, and the bay leaf. Bring to a simmer.
4. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook, breaking up with the side of a large spoon into bite-sized pieces, until it loses its pink color, about 8 minutes. Add the onions, red pepper, and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened, about 6 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of water and bring to a boil, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Stir into the chicken mixture. Stir in the beans. (The cassoulet can be prepared up to this point up to 1 day ahead, cooled, covered, and refrigerated. Stir 2 additional cups of chicken stock or water into the cassoulet before proceeding.)
5. In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs. parsley, and remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Sprinkle over the top of the cassoulet. Bake for 30 minutes. Using a large spoon, gently press the thin crust that has formed on the cassoulet just under the surface. Continue baking until the cassoulet is simmering and a second thin crust has formed, about 30 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes. Serve hot.
Note: Instead of paying a premium for boneless and skinless chicken thighs, purchase 5 pounds chicken thighs with the skin and bones, and remove the skin and bones yourself. It’s a quick and easy procedure.