Tuesday, January 16, 2007


Thanks to this recipe, I have been wandering around the house singing “I made squash cass-oo-laaaayyy” to myself in a Bob Dylan-esque accent, to the tune of “I Threw It All Away” from Nashville Skyline. No, I don’t know why. Just roll with me here, folks.

Maybe I’m being reminded of Minnesota and its greatest singer-songwriter (sorry, Prince) because it’s been record-breakingly “cold” here in California. It is weird, and my sympathies go out to the homeless, the citrus growers, and anyone whose pipes are frozen, but if I hear one more panicky TV news fluff report about the “arctic” temperatures, I’m going to scream. (Example: over footage of a man wearing a light windbreaker jogging along the beach on a clear, sunny, beautiful 50-degree day, the newscaster says darkly, “Training for an upcoming marathon, John Doe refuses to let the bad weather keep him from running.”) Ah, Southern California, where if a small patch of ice appears on a freeway exit ramp, they close the whole ramp down. These people would make terrible pioneers.

Anyway, when I saw this cassoulet lovingly photographed in Cooking Light, it seemed like just the thing for a brisk evening in our drafty apartment. (Where we have not yet turned on the heat, because we’re Tough Midwesterners, and besides, isn’t that what we have cats for? To drape over ourselves for warmth?) Y’all know I’m not great fan of the bean, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can enjoy certain kinds (white, black) in moderation, as long as they’re warm and at least partially broken down (but no cold, slimy, hard chickpeas on my salads, please!). I pointed to myself and A that the glories of roasted garlic, caramelized onions, butternut squash, bacon, and toasted breadcrumb topping would mitigate the risk of any unpleasant overbeaniness. Since I had the day off yesterday and the recipe is a tad time-intensive, it seemed the perfect opportunity to give it a whirl, and…yum! A cinch to make—seems like a lot of ingredients but they come together easily, and most of the long cooking time can be spent on the couch with a book while the garlic roasts, onions caramelize, and cassoulet bakes in the oven. The flavors blended together nicely. It was warm, wholesome, and comforting. It was also unique from most of my other recipes. Pretty bean-centric, so I’m not going to start making it every week or anything, but I will make it again, and A agreed to eat it again. (Asked for his review, he couldn’t quite overcome the presence of beans: “It has beans in it.” “Well, but for beans it was pretty good, right?” “It still had beans in it.” But the fact that he ate it and will eat it again is a ringing endorsement, coming from a confirmed bean-hater. I am so relieved not to be reliving the Ratatouille Wars of 2004.)

As a bonus, this was my first time cooking with pancetta. The stuff I found at Trader Joe’s was pre-chopped into such miniscule dice that I don’t think I got a good solid taste of the stuff; just little bursts of vague meaty saltiness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Cooking Light says you can substitute regular smoked bacon, but use less, because it’s more assertive than pancetta, which is unsmoked. Also, I’ve been cooking all this past week with fresh bay leaves, which I bought at the farmers’ market. The flavor is much more robust than the sad dried-up ones in my spice rack.

Tips: I don’t have a Dutch oven, so I just cooked everything in a heavy skillet on the stovetop and then transferred it into a 2-quart casserole dish when it came time to pop it in the oven. Also, I made just a half-recipe, which provided 4 generous servings. After I got the garlic head all roasted, I noticed that the recipe only has you use half of it, which meant that, in halving the recipe, I was only supposed to use a fourth of the head. This seemed wasteful, so I used half the head and it was great. The other half I mixed with a little butter and spread on some baguette left over from making the bread crumbs. When I took the top off the cassoulet to cook it uncovered for the last 15 minutes of baking, I threw the garlic-laden bread slices on a baking sheet and put it in the oven to toast, giving me garlic bread and cassoulet all at the same time! We ate our meal with some apple slices on the side, but a nice green salad would also accompany it well.

1 whole garlic head
4 ounces pancetta (or regular bacon), chopped
2 cups vertically sliced onion
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
4½ cups (½-inch) cubed peeled butternut squash (about 2 pounds)
½ cup vegetable broth (I used homemade chicken broth)
½ teaspoon dried thyme (I used fresh)
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 (16-ounce) cans cannellini or other white beans, rinsed and drained
1 bay leaf
2 (1-ounce) slices white bread
2 tablespoons grated fresh Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Remove white papery skin from garlic head (do not peel or separate the cloves). Wrap garlic head in foil. Bake 1 hour; cool 10 minutes. Separate cloves; squeeze to extract garlic pulp. Set half of garlic pulp aside; reserve remaining garlic pump for another use. Discard skins.

3. When garlic has been baking for 30-40 minutes, heat a large Dutch oven (or heavy skillet) over medium-high heat. Add pancetta; sauté 5 minutes or until crisp. Remove pancetta from pan with a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to drain, reserving drippings in pan. Add onion and 1 tablespoon oil to drippings in pan; sauté 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low; cook 25 minutes or until onion is very tender and browned, stirring frequently. Stir in vinegar.

4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

5. Add garlic pulp, pancetta, squash, and next 6 ingredients (through bay leaf) to onion mixture, stirring well. If using a skillet, transfer mixture to an oven-safe 9x12 baking dish. Pulse bread in a food processor to make crumbs (or just tear them by hand), and combine breadcrumbs, Parmesan, and ½ teaspoon olive oil in a small bowl; sprinkle evenly over squash mixture.

6. Cover and bake 50 minutes or until squash is tender. Uncover and bake an additional 15 minutes or until topping is browned. Discard bay leave. Sprinkle with parsley.

Serves: 8
Time: 2½ hours

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