Hearty beans, tender lamb and a menu to remember

By David Tanis, The New York Times

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.

Persimmon and Pomegranate Salad

By David Tanis

Persimmons and pomegranate are colorful fall and winter treats. Be sure to use squat Fuyu persimmons, which are delicious raw. (The pointy Hachiya type must be fully ripe, or they are unpalatable.) To serve this salad as a first course, you may add arugula or radicchio leaves. Or just garnish with mint leaves if you are serving it as an accompaniment.

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

  • 6 Fuyu persimmons
  • Salt and black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds (from 1 medium pomegranate)
  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate juice
  • Mint leaves, for garnish

Preparation

1. Peel persimmons with a vegetable peeler. Cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch wedges or 1/4-inch slices and place in a bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper, then dress with lemon juice and oil.

2. Transfer to a shallow serving bowl or platter and top with pomegranate seeds. Squeeze the pomegranate juice over the salad — squeeze the outer layer of the pomegranate if you need a little more juice — and garnish with mint leaves.

Cassoulet-Style Lamb Shanks and Beans

By David Tanis

This is not a full-blown cassoulet, chock-full of sausages and duck confit, but it is so satisfying nonetheless. It takes a couple of days to put together because you have to cook the lamb and cook the beans, combine them, and bake them twice. The result is a dish of enchanting deep flavor. (Simmering the seasoned lamb results in a delicious broth.)

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Total time: 4 1/2 hours, plus cooling

Ingredients

For the Beans:

  • 1 1/2 pounds dried white beans, such as cannellini or great Northern
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • 1 large onion, peeled and halved
  • Salt

For the Lamb:

  • 4 bone-in lamb shanks (about 5 pounds total)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • 1 large onion, peeled and halved
  • 4 medium carrots, peeled
  • 1 whole head garlic, cloves separated but unpeeled, plus 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 strip of orange peel
  • 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary
  • 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
  • 2 cups coarse dry breadcrumbs
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley

Preparation

1. Cook the beans: Pick out and discard any debris, then rinse beans and put them in a large pot. Use a clove to pin a bay leaf to each onion half and add to the pot. Add about 8 cups water to cover the beans, set the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and let beans simmer until tender — cooked through but firm — 1 hour to 1 1/2 hours, adding a large pinch of salt at the 30-minute mark. As beans cook, add water as necessary, keeping the liquid about an inch above the beans. Let beans cool in their own liquid. Taste for salt and adjust as needed.

2. Meanwhile, cook the lamb: Season the shanks quite generously all over with salt and pepper. Let sit for an hour at room temperature or overnight in the fridge. Put the shanks in a large pot. Use a clove to pin a bay leaf to each onion half, and add to the pot. Add carrots and garlic cloves along with the orange peel, and fill the pot with about 8 cups water. Set the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Turn heat to low and let simmer. Skim off any foam, then partly cover the pot. Cook until lamb is very tender and begins to fall from the bone when probed with a paring knife, about 1 hour 15 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Leave lamb to cool in the broth.

3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Once the lamb is cool enough to handle, strain the broth, taste and adjust seasoning, and reserve. Tear lamb into rough strips, about 1 inch by 2 inch. Chop the cooked carrots and onion, and add to the lamb. (Discard the garlic.)

4. Drain the beans, reserving any liquid for future soups, and add them to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Add the reserved lamb and vegetables, minced garlic and half of the rosemary and thyme, and mix with the beans. Taste and season. Push down on the mixture so it lays evenly, and add 2 cups lamb broth. (Beans should be just a little soupy before cooking, but not drowning.) Cover dish tightly with foil, place on a baking sheet and bake for about 1 hour, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the dish bubbles at the edges.

5. In a small bowl, mix together the remaining rosemary and thyme, breadcrumbs and 3 tablespoons olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Sprinkle crumbs evenly over beans and lamb, then pat them down over the surface of the lamb and vegetables so they moisten a bit. Drizzle over about 2 more tablespoons olive oil.

6. Bake for 1 hour more, until the top is golden and the dish bubbles at the edges. (You may have to add up to 1 to 2 cups more lamb broth if the beans seem dry.) Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Tips: This dish may be prepared up to 2 days in advance, and the flavors will actually improve with reheating. Cover with foil and reheat at 350 degrees, for 45 minutes, then remove foil and let topping brown for 15 minutes. (It will be necessary to moisten with more broth, as the beans will have absorbed most of the liquid.)

Baked Apples With Honey and Apricot

By David Tanis

Baked apples are a humble dessert, but these have a certain elegance. Stuffed with dried apricots and raisins, glazed with honey and apricot jam, and served with crème fraîche, they are delicious warm or at room temperature.

Yield: 6 servings

Total time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Ingredients

  • 6 baking apples, such as Winesap, Braeburn, Gala or Fuji
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup diced dried apricots
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 6 teaspoons apricot jam, plus more for optional glazing
  • 1/2 cup white wine or apple juice
  • 1/2 cup toasted flaked almonds, for garnish (optional)
  • Crème fraîche, for serving

Preparation

1. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Peel apples and remove core with a small spoon or melon baller. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Brown apples on all sides, then place them in a baking dish just large enough to hold them.

2. Spoon an equal amount of diced apricots and raisins into the cavity of each apple. Add 1 teaspoon honey, 1 teaspoon apricot jam and 1 teaspoon butter to each apple. Drizzle remaining honey evenly over apples. Pour wine or apple juice into the bottom of the dish.

3. Bake uncovered until the apples are golden and easily pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes. Every 10 minutes or so, baste apples with pan juices.

4. Pour remaining juices into a small saucepan, and simmer over medium heat until it reduces, about 7 minutes. Spoon reduced juices over apples. If desired, paint apples with a little warmed apricot jam. Serve warm or at room temperature. Just before serving, sprinkle apples with toasted flaked almonds, if using. Give each apple a dollop of crème fraîche.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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