The tail end of last year was frantic with the completion of the education packs for the Abington Park Outdoor Classroom Project and now I’m onto my next project, adapting Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ for a stage production in June at a local heritage site. It’s back to work with a vengeance this week. I’ve cleared the decks of decorations, cut a few very early daffodils from the garden and settled down to scribble. Nourishing and wholesome food and plenty of fresh air is essential when I’m in full-on writing mode.
My Twitter timeline is full of people getting back to work and New Year’s resolutions to get fit and eat healthily. In this house there’s still time for dawdling over a bit of slow cooking in the kitchen and a walk or two in the wild and wet Wiltshire countryside which does tend to give you a healthy appetite for comfort food. Here’s one of our favourite recipes which ticks every box. And before you roll your eyes….yes, you can make a delicious cassoulet without meat! As I am a cook who rarely measures or weighs ingredients, you’ll have to forgive the approximate quantities.
1 cup dry beans ( cannellini,flageoulet or borlotti)
1 carrot, finely diced
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 small leeks. chopped
1 small parsnip, peeled and finely diced
about 1/2 lb winter squash, chopped to coarse, 1-2″ pieces
about 1/4 lb mushrooms, quartered
a handful of shredded greens
1 cup apple cider
1 cup passata
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1/2 bunch fresh thyme
a few sage leaves, chopped (optional)
a sprig rosemary, chopped (optional)
1-2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (optional)
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
for the roux:
4 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup plain flour
Soak beans overnight. Drain. Pour boiling water over beans to cover by at least 3 inches and cover. Let sit for 1 hour, and drain.
In a large, cast-iron pot, melt the butter and add the flour. Keep heat on low and stir occasionally for about 30 minutes, until roux is a medium, reddish chestnut-brown.
Add the onion, carrot, leeks and parsnip. Season with salt and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, on low heat. Add an extra tablespoon of butter if mixture feels very dry and is sticking too much to the bottom of the pot. Cook until all vegetables have reduced in size and released most of their juices, so that the pot is becoming dry again. Add the mushrooms, garlic, and the herbs. Once mushrooms have softened a little and garlic is fragrant, deglaze pot with the apple cider. Add the squash, bay leaves, tomato sauce, generous pinches of salt and pepper, and the drained beans.
Place cover on pot and transfer to a preheated low oven. Cook for 2 hours. Remove lid and check beans for tenderness. If beans are not soft enough and mixture is becoming too dry, add a little more tomato sauce or vegetable stock and cover again. If not, sprinkle the optional breadcrumbs across the top of the cassoulet, season with salt and pepper, and cook uncovered for another 15-20 minutes or until breadcrumbs are golden. Let cool a few minutes before serving.