Peasant Bean Stew

Peasant bean stew plated

Yesterday I set out to make a cassoulet-inspired dish, without sacrificing my entire Saturday to the process. Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that I’m in love with peasant / comfort food. My problem with many cassoulets I’ve had in restaurants, even very reputable ones, is how dry they tend to be. I’ve read Julia Child’s cassoulet recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but always procrastinate taking it on because of the time involved. Here is one attempt to solve both those problems, and I admit to being very happy with the result.

The post is long because I’ve gone into some detail, but the actual time involved was quite efficient.

Peasant Bean Stew

3/4 lb dried red nightfall beans (or great northern)
1 bunch parsley, tied with kitchen string
4 carrots. 2 whole, 2 chopped
2 celery stalks
4 sweet italian sausages (4″ in length)
4 or 5 slices good quality bacon, sliced into 1/2 to 1″ pieces
1 to 2 inches of hot sopresatta salami, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3 or 4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup red wine
1 full tbsp of finely chopped fresh tarragon
2 or 3 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 1/2 cups bread crumbs (3 slices of farm bread pulsed in a food processor)
reserved bean cooking liquid (from making the dish)
salt and pepper
olive oil

Peasant bean stew 1

The beans: I used red nightfall beans (part of my Rancho Gordo habit), but there are many kinds of beans that would work well for this dish. Flageolet or Tepary beans would be nice, as would I think Cannellini beans. If you are working from a normal US supermarket you can usually find Great Northern Beans.

I put the beans in cold water to soak in the morning, but this is an optional step. It does speed up cooking time, however. I also do a quick, and optional, step at the start to reduce the enzyme in beans that causes gas in folks not used to eating legumes. This step, suggested by Peter at Kalofagas, is a bit easier than the steps Bittman suggests in How to Cook Everything: you put the beans in cold water in a large pot, bring to a boil for 2 minutes and drain.

Place the beans back in the pot, fill with cold water to an inch over the top of the beans. Add in two peeled carrots, 2 stalks of celery (halved to fit), a bay leaf, and a bunch of parsley tied up with kitchen string. Optionally, you can toss in part of a ham hock or some bacon here. Bring back to a boil, and then reduce to a light simmer. Turn off the heat when the beans are just tender — cooking time will vary but start testing around 40 minutes in. Save the bean cooking liquid in one bowl, and put the beans aside in another.

Peasant bean stew 2

Discard the parsley. Place the cooked carrots and celery in a food processor, along with 1/2 cup of the cooked beans and 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Puree and set aside.

Note: I then switched to a 3″ deep cast iron skillet, which I placed in the oven when prep was done. If you don’t have something similar, you can use a medium-size dutch oven or continue using the pan you used to cook the beans and transfer to a baking dish before putting in oven.

Preheat oven to 375F.

Cook the bacon in the deep skillet until almost crispy, then set aside. (Note: I would have preferred to have worked from good slab bacon, rather than thin slices, and thus have chunkier pieces, but had to work with what I had on hand) Brown the sausages in the skillet until just firm, and set aside. Drain the excess oil.

Add a splash of olive oil and saute the onion and garlic on medium-low heat, stirring regularly, until the onion starts to turn translucent. Add the chopped carrot and cook for another couple of minutes, then pour in the puree. Add 1/2 cup of red wine, another 1/2 cup of the reserved bean cooking liquid, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for several minutes.

Peasant bean stew 3

Slice the sausages into 1/2 inch segments, and add the sausage, bacon and hot salami to the pot. Then gently stir in the beans, chopped tarragon, and parsley. Add some of the bean cooking liquid until the pot starts to get a bit soupy (see below), but not to the point where everything is swimming. Keep the rest of the bean cooking liquid on hand, however, in case you need it at the end if it comes out of the oven drier than you want.

Peasant bean stew 3

Turn off the heat and sprinkle bread crumbs on top. Place in oven at 375F for 15 minutes, then turn down the heat to 350F.

Peasant bean stew 4

Bake the dish for an hour or so. Optional: about 45-50 minutes in, you can test for how dry/moist the dish is by breaking into the breadcrumb crust and checking for moisture deeper into the dish. If it is looking too dry, ladle some more cooking broth around the top and place back in the oven for long enough that the bread crumbs get dry and toasted again.

Peasant bean stew 5

There are so many directions you can take a dish like this, in terms of the herbs you use and the meats. It would be a great use for leftover brisket or a pork shoulder braise. If you do end up doing a riff on this recipe and like the results, please let me know!

Beef Stew (our version)

beef stew plated

I am chained to the bed today, fending off percocet-induced fuzziness after minor surgery yesterday (not to worry, I should be up again in no time). Lisl had to stay home from work to help me, and one lovely side benefit is the wonderful smell of baking bread wafting through the house. In between attempts to get work done, I’ve been catching up on food blogs, flipping through cookbooks, twittering more than usual, and trying to think how I can be as funny as Zen. I’ve decided that I need to accept my limitations. 🙂

I also decided to update my beef stew recipe on here since I made a big batch right before heading to the hospital (when I was still allowed to lift my dutch oven) and took a few pics of the process.

Most food bloggers probably have their own favorite beef stew recipe; ours comes from my mother, and one day many years ago I took notes as she put it together. She cooks the dish by feel so it is never exactly the same, but the basics are as follows:

2 medium onions, diced
2 cloves minced garlic
10 mushrooms (white or cremini), thickly sliced
2 pounds round or chuck beef
5 carrots, thickly chopped
5 stalks celery, chopped
2 large russet potatoes, cut into large chunks
large handful of green beans, ends removed and cut into 1″ pieces
1.5 cups frozen peas
3 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
2 tbsp tomato paste
very large handful of parsley, chopped
1 tbsp oregano
salt & pepper

Trim some of the excess fat off of the beef, but leave some to add richness. Cut the beef into cubes of preferred size (I do rough cubes of about an inch) and lightly flour on all sides.

beef stew 1

Start boiling a kettle of water (or a medium pot) and pre-heat oven to 315F.

In a large oven-proof pot such as a dutch oven, heat some olive oil and saute the onions and garlic over medium-low heat. As they start to turn translucent, add in your mushrooms. Cook for several minutes

Remove the onions and mushrooms to a large bowl, add a little more olive oil to the pot, and brown the beef in batches over slightly higher heat (adding olive oil as necessary). Just brown the beef, do not cook. Remove the beef to the bowl with onions and mushrooms, and deglaze the bottom of the pot with some of the boiling water.

Your kitchen should smell amazing at this point. 🙂

Turn the heat down to low, and then return the meat, onions and mushrooms to the pot. Add everything except for the green beans and peas. Add 1 tsp of salt (you’ll probably want more, but can add to taste later). Add the wine and then pour in boiling water until the water level is just below the tops of the meat and vegetables.

beef stew 2

Bring to a bubbling simmer on the stovetop, then cover and place in the oven for an hour. After an hour, skim any excess oil off of the top, then stir in the green beans and peas, and taste for salt. Return to the oven for another 2 hours, periodically pulling it out for a stir. The longer you can slow-cook it, the thicker it should get as the vegetables break down and thicken the stew. (you don’t want to try to thicken it by boiling off liquid)

beef stew 3

I wait to add pepper until serving, and will often add some freshly chopped parsley. While it is very good on its own, we often serve with egg noodles or rice.

A few notes:
If you need to cook your stew on the stovetop, do your best to keep the simmer very light, and stir regularly especially if you have a thin-bottomed pot, because you do not want the bottom of the stew to burn. That happened to me once and the burnt flavor permeated the whole thing!

You can totally mix up the amounts of each vegetable to fit your flavor profile, or add more red wine to make it richer, or use rosemary instead of oregano, etc. This last stew I made (which is where the photographs came from) included some san marzano tomatoes, chunks of celery root, a jalapeno pepper, and we did not have any peas. It was delicious, but the base recipe my family likes to work off of is as described above.