I wanted cassoulet the other day and that is essentially why this pot of Baked White Beans happened. Lately, memorable restaurant meals have been flitting before my eyes. I dream of the agnolotti from my favorite Italian haunt and revisit every slurp of ramen and sip of ice-cold beer I experienced at the izakaya down the street. But mostly, I am haunted by memories of the cassoulet from La Palette on Queen West here in Toronto. And it’s not just the dish itself, it’s the staff, the decor, everything I felt sitting at that handsome bar. But I won’t be sitting at that bar again anytime soon. And I somehow doubt there is Toulouse sausage within walking distance from my house.
A Delicious Approximation
So, what do you do when you have an itch you can’t scratch? You make a close approximation and hope it helps. And you know what? It did. I can’t rightfully call this dish a “Cassoulet” but it did give me those same cozy vibes and, more importantly, it coached me through my craving like a pro.
Beans: The Silver Lining
When I think back on this collective timeout, I want to remember the beans. What people did with them and how they treasured them. It may sound absurd. I mean, after all, a bean is still simply a bean. But it’s in the valuing of wee bean-sized things, that I find this situation’s most restoring silver lining. People are finally treating resources as just that. The things that nourish us without stressing us with an exorbitant price or lack of shelf stability, provide the most comfort.
These are old muscles. The generations before us – and you don’t even have to go back that far – knew this and we’re learning it now. And because I am a hopelessly nostalgic individual with not one but two history degrees, I cannot help but see the beauty in that. And it’s not just the beans. I’ve been finding that same silver lining time and time again. It truly is the little things. And no, you won’t fully understand that deceptively simple adage until you’re made to feel a little less uncomfortable. Speaking from experience here. I hope our creativity during this time will be the most enduring memory. And I hope these newly found old muscles will never atrophy.
Forget Hot Cakes, it’s all About the Beans
I say all this because the first time I went shopping in all this mess, there were no beans to be had. My meal planning had obviously walked a well-worn path. No beans were left at my grocery store – dried nor canned, kidney nor great northern. I remember being taken aback. No one bought dried beans or lentils in my neighborhood. This particular shelf in my local was usually packed fit to bursting, while the canned beans were a little more picked over. This was the moment I chose to panic. This was the moment, I realized that things had indeed shifted.
But after my mini panic attack, I made a new game plan, got my groceries and went home. And it was only after my front door was bolted behind me that I smiled. People were stocking up to cook. And they weren’t cooking frozen pizzas and instant noodles. They were going through the trouble of soaking dried beans. Honestly, the thought restored my faith in humanity. People taking the slow route to dinner – well, that’s just a beautiful, caring thing.
Eventually, I did get my mitts on a big bag of dried white beans, and these Baked White Beans with Italian Sausage and Collard Greens was the first thing I made with it. This dish is basically an inventory of what I had in my fridge, pantry and bar at the time. And you know what? It worked so well, you’ve sworn I planned it. So, here we go! Let’s go through this quarantine cassoulet.
Baked White Beans with Italian Sausage and Collard Greens
Okay, so things start off predictably enough. Soak dem beans in cold water for 6-8 hours or overnight. Then pop them in large saucepan and cover with water. Bring the whole mess to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Leave the bean to cook, partially covered for 1 hour. See? It’s all fairly pedestrian.
While the beans are cooking, brown a few sausages and make a tomato stew with the usual suspects. Rendered fat from lardon, or in my case bacon, provides the fatty foundation on which to build the sauce, which naturally starts with the classic carrot, onion and celery trio. Then it’s a splash of cognac, a tin of tomatoes, a bay leaf or two and time. When everything is well acquainted, you stir in some collards and little spinach to wilt. And finally, in go the beans. Now it’s time to build the dish.
Pour the beans into a baking dish, or better yet build the dish in an oven-safe cooking vessel. Make sausage-shaped indents in the beans and place the sausages themselves in their designated zones. Cover the surface of the dish with breadcrumbs and dot with butter. And then all that’s standing between you and dinner is a 40-minute interlude of oven-time.
Okay, so these Baked White Beans aren’t speedy. But their snail pace includes a whole lot of inactivity on your part. This recipe doesn’t require your constant attention. Dishes like this one were made for situations like this. We’re all supposed to be home anyway, we might as well check in on a pot of beans.
So, that’s everything you need to know about these Baked White Beans with Italian Sausage and Collard Greens. This dish is the perfect slow cook and, in my opinion, the very best way to spend your quarantine.
Baked White Beans with Italian Sausage and Collard Greens
- Large Cast Iron Skillet
- 454g (1lb) dried white beans
- 4 strips thick-cut bacon cut into batons
- 5 hot Italian sausages
- 1 yellow onion diced
- 2 stalks celery sliced, leaves reserved
- 1 large carrot peeled, diced
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- ¼ cup cognac
- 1 can whole tomatoes
- 2 cups beef, veggie or chicken stock
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 sprigs rosemary
- 1 ½ tsp salt divided
- 1 cup baby spinach tightly packed
- 2 cups collard greens stems removed, leaves torn
- 1 ½ cups breadcrumbs
- 2 tbsp butter cut into small cubes
- Place the beans in a large bowl and cover with 2-inches of cold water. Let soak for 6-8 hours or overnight.
- Once the beans are finished soaking, transfer them to a large saucepan and cover with a couple of inches of cold water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let cook for 1 hour, partially covered, or until the beans are creamy. Drain the beans and season with 1 teaspoon of the salt. Set aside until ready to use.
- While the beans are cooking, preheat the oven to 375°F. Place the bacon in a cold large cast-iron skillet. Place the skillet over low heat and saute until the fat has rendered out and the bacon is crispy. Using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the skillet and transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel to drain.
- Place the sausages in the skillet and increase the heat to medium. Sear the sausages on all sides until golden. You just want to get color on them, you don't need to cook them all the way through at this stage. Once the sausages are browned, transfer them to a plate and set aside.
- Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the fat in the cast iron skillet. Add the onion, carrot, and celery. Saute until the onion is just translucent. Stir in the garlic and saute until fragrant. Pour in the cognac and cook until most of the liquid is absorbed.
- Open the can of tomatoes and transfer to a bowl. Crush the whole tomatoes with your hand before adding them to the skillet. Pour the remaining juices over top. Stir in the stock and increase the heat to high. Bring the mixture to a boil and stir in the remaining salt, the bay leaves, and the rosemary sprigs. Return the bacon to the pan and reduce the temperature to low. Let simmer for 15 minutes. In the last five minutes of cooking, stir in the collards and spinach into the tomato stew.
- Take the tomato mixture off of the heat and stir the cooked beans. Using the back of a spoon, create divets in the bean mixture to accommodate the sausages. Add the sausages to the divets and sprinkle the dish with breadcrumbs. Dot the surface with butter and place it in the oven. Bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes or until golden and bubbling.
- Let the dish stand for 10 minutes before serving. Just before serving, coarsely chop the reserved celery leaves and sprinkle them over the dish. Serve with toast on the side and a glass of beer.