LOS ANGELES, February 27, 2013 — Comfort foods are typically soul satisfying and often artery clogging regional classics. More often than not, they’re warm foods laden with carbohydrates and/or fat, the sorts that lull us almost into a somnambulist state.
Aphrodisiacs on the other hand are foods that invigorate, energize and prime the body for sensual pleasure. Certainly there can be something sensual to the amalgamation of cream, cheddar and pasta slipping across the tongue. But that, my friends, is where the aphrodisiac attributes of mac and cheese begin and end.
Although I promote healthy food choices year round, my comfort food cravings come out in winter. And right now I’m craving duck cassoulet.
I developed my taste for cassoulet in Provence and the Camargue. Even though my first trip to the region was in spring, I just couldn’t resist the hearty, salty, tangy, creamy, chewy dish. My addiction grew the spring I landed a writing assignment at the Cannes film festival. I discovered that my local market sold canning jars full of duck confit. I remember late-night bowls of the stuff, filling my belly in the hours before the sun rose. It was often the only food I would eat, aside from my morning coffee and croissant, until I would heat the next bowl in the wee hours after I’d returned from the following evening’s parties. Of course, it was sort of like the Kraft version of a national classic, but even duck confit in a jar can cement a lifelong love affair!
Unfortunately, traditional cassoulet isn’t one of those dishes you just “whip up.” Nor is it something that fits with my aphrodisiac diet. Sure, duck in its skinless form makes a fantastic, high-protein aphrodisiac. But a couple of confited legs slow cooked with pork sausage and beans is not exactly the kind of food to put you in the mood for anything more than a long winter’s slumber.
I don’t mean to say that you can’t fall off the wagon with a meal now and again, especially if it helps you get through the dark days of winter. However, I wanted to challenge myself to create version of cassoulet that can fill the internal need for warmth while benefiting the body’s every cell. And I wanted to do it in a day, not the three that a traditional cassoulet can take to prepare.
Cassoulets have regional distinctions and a part of those distinctions include availability of ingredients. Originally, the dish was essentially meant to be a slow cooked dish of beans with whatever else was available. In other words, it is the chili cook-off dish of France. (I am very proud of my aphrodisiac chili recipe; although it is one of the healthiest, lowest fat chilis I’ve ever encountered, I maintain it is one of the best. Surely, I can come up with a cassoulet that is at least half as satisfying!)
I was a bit indecisive about whether or not to add the breadcrumbs. Many sources claim that the crust should be achieved naturally as a film that forms atop the beans. The film should actually be broken and allowed to be reformed—some recipes even call for forming seven crusts, before a cassoulet is complete. After a quick reality (time) check, I surrendered to the realization that if I wanted a crust, it was going to have to come from breadcrumbs.
To increase the potential of my cassoulet as an intriguing winter dish for two, I added several aphrodisiac ingredients including celery, extra garlic and tomato. I also threw in 4 cups of sex hormone supporting dark, leafy greens—this is a trick that can be used to on many recipes, particularly casseroles and stews, to boost the nutritional outlook. And since, for practicality’s sake more than anything, chose to use chicken thighs instead of duck, I made a delicious little nod to decadence by cooking my chicken in duck fat. I’m not sure how much flavor impact the tablespoon of duck fat added to the final dish but it certainly created a delicious aroma as the thighs cooked.
My Aphrodisiac Cassoulet
makes 6 servings
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
1 tbsp duck fat (or grape seed oil if you’re feeling virtuous)
1 lg onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 carrots, cut into rounds
3 stalks celery, chopped
5 sprigs fresh thyme
1 c dry white wine
1 15oz can white beans
1 28 oz can chopped tomatoes
12 oz garlicky chicken sausage, cut into ½” rounds
4 c mustard greens
½ c chicken stock
¼ c panko
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Season the chicken thighs with salt and trim off any large pieces of excess fat.
3. Heat the duck fat in a Dutch oven. Cook the chicken over medium high heat until browned on both sides. Set the thighs aside.
4. Add the onions, garlic, carrots, celery, thyme and a pinch of salt to the duck fat. Cook until onions are soft, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until it has reduced by half, about another 3-4 minutes.
5. Add the beans, tomatoes, chicken sausage, mustard greens and stock and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes.
6. Sprinkle the top of the cassoulet with the panko and transfer to oven. Cook for 60-70 minutes or until cassoulet is bubbling, crusty on the edges and the panko is golden.
Serve by candle or fire light to make a memorable evening for two. Save the leftovers for lunches. The stew’s flavors will intensify with time.
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