Does anyone remember the J. Peterman catalog? At this point, it’s probably best remembered from Seinfeld, on which Elaine got a job writing the fanciful text for the catalog, but I remember the catalog itself well from the late 80s and early 90s. It sticks out in my memory not only because my best childhood friend’s mother was one of the artists for it at the time, because it was, well, simply unlike any other catalog I’d seen before or have seen since. A clothing catalog illustrated with drawings, rather than photographs, of each item was fairly unusual, but that didn’t explain it entirely since the big department stores all featured illustrated newspaper ads at that point, too. No, what made the J. Peterman catalog so very strange and gripping were the descriptions of items. Eschewing the simple straight-forward prose of most competitors, J. Peterman indulgently painted scenes and spun tales of the exotic locales that his wares evoked. A simple linen dress brings back memories of the sights, sounds, and tastes of Africa (ostrich omelette and afternoon G&T’s, anyone?). A cotton sweater recalls Nantucket in the winter, after the fair-weather hordes have returned home and swimming and yachting are replaced with long walks and sipping wine in front of the fire. (Incidentally, these are not items from my own imagination- a quick google search revealed that the J. Peterman catalog is still alive and well online and running and these are actual items currently offered along with a brief synoposis of their descriptors.)
If there were a culinary version of the J. Peterman catalog, if Epicurious (on which I discovered this recipe) decided that the simple prose preceding its recipes was no longer enough to adequately capture the tastes and feel of a dish (as is so often the case, I find), this vegetarian cassoulet would undoubtedly spin a tale of the French countryside, of Gallic farmers coming in for a hearty meal after a long day’s work. It would evoke the smell of herbs thrown into an old cast iron pot, the contented groans of tired muscles sitting down at a long farmhouse table, the sounds of homemade wine splashing into a glass.
Why even in my little Californian kitchen, itself evocative of nothing more than cheap 80s architecture, I felt transported. I haven’t spent any significant time in the French countryside and have certainly never met a French peasant farmer, but this dish seemed very much of a particular time and place. It was hearty and filling, spiked with chunks of carrots, leeks, and celery in a thick bed of semi-crushed white beans. More solid than a stew, but still liquid enough to require a bowl, this cassoulet was redolent with fresh herbs (in in our case, a healthy sprinkle of herbes de Provence) and topped with lightly crisped parsley-laced bread crumbs. As the weather warms and our appetites begin to turn to lighter fare, this dish will inevitable take a back seat to fresh salads, but while there are still chilly spring days on the horizon, take advantage of the leeks in season and enjoy a bowl of cassoulet and a glass of wine- it’s like a mini-vacation to the French countryside.
Vegetarian cassoulet (serves 4-6)
3 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only)
4 medium carrots, halved
lengthwise and cut into 1-inch-wide pieces
3 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch-wide pieces
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
4 thyme sprigs
2 parsley sprigs
1 Turkish or 1/2 California bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
3 (19-ounce) cans cannellini or Great Northern beans, rinsed and drained
1 quart water
For garlic crumbs
4 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs from a baguette
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1. Make cassoulet:
Halve leeks lengthwise and cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces, then wash well and pat dry.
Cook leeks, carrots, celery, and garlic in oil with herb sprigs, bay leaf, cloves, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a large heavy pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 15 minutes. Stir in beans, then water, and simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until carrots are tender but not falling apart, about 30 minutes.
2. Make garlic crumbs while cassoulet simmers:
Preheat oven to 350°F with rack in middle.
Toss bread crumbs with oil, garlic, and 1/4 teaspoon each of salt and pepper in a bowl until well coated. Spread in a baking pan and toast in oven, stirring once halfway through, until crisp and golden, 12 to 15 minutes.
Cool crumbs in pan, then return to bowl and stir in parsley.
3. Finish cassoulet:
Discard herb sprigs and bay leaf. Mash some of beans in pot with a potato masher or back of a spoon to thicken broth. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, sprinkle with garlic crumbs.