We catered a dinner party for a client last night and we were especially puffed up over the fact that most of the food came from our garden here in the District of Columbia about one mile from the White House.
The world may be going to hell in a handbasket elsewhere, but our front yard here is still making great food.
The opening salad, for instance, was harvested just hours before the guests arrived: a half-dozen varieties of greens provided a background for Purple Cherokee and Brandywine tomatoes tossed with multi-colored beets. Around an entree of sweet-and-sour braised chicken thighs, we served minted orange and golden carrots, and this incredible casserole of beans, tomatoes and toasted bread crumbs.
I'm calling it a meatless cassoulet but of course it isn't a cassoulet at all. It only cooks in the oven for about an hour, but the flavors so remind me of the famous dish of confit and sausage and beans from Southwestern France that a comparison is almost inevitable.
I saw Alice Waters demonstrate this dish on television where she used cranberry beans. I wanted to see if it would adapt to the "lima" beans we grew in our garden this year, of which there was a ton still to be eaten. I put quotes around the "lima" part because these were not the lima beans with which I have been familiar since childhood--those bright green beans that some people love so much to hate. They came out of the pods a mottled brown and white and turned a deep chocolate brown when cooked, reminding me more of the dried fava beans you find in the Middle Eastern grocery.
Whatever they are, they have a wonderfully deep, meaty and satisfying flavor. I thought they would compare favorably to cranberry beans and I think they actually outdo them for flavor in this casserole.
For a small casserole, you need about 1 1/2 cups of cooked beans, saving the cooking liquid (I cooked mine with some onion, garlic, thyme, bay leaf). Set those aside and saute in some extra-virgin olive oil 1/2 medium onion, diced small, and a large clove of garlic--or two--finely chopped. Season with coarse salt. Add several sage leaves, chopped fine to make about 1 tablespoon.
Meanwhile, toast fresh bread crumbs made by removing the crusts from a couple of thick slices of rustic bread (we've been using a loaf with rosemary) and pulsing them in a food processor until broken down into small pieces.
Toss the cooked beans, the onion-garlic-sage mix and a medium heirloom tomato roughly chopped (about 1 cup). Season with salt and pepper and pour this into your casserole. Pour leftover bean cooking liquid into the casserole to just cover the vegetable mix. (You can use chicken stock if you don't have bean cooking liquid). Top with bread crumbs and place in a 375-degree oven. Bake until the bread crumbs are golden brown and the liquid has been absorbed. Serve warm.
Beans, onion, garlic, sage--what a great combination, and the bread crumbs almost make the dish a meal in itself. Try this and see if it doesn't taste like a meatless cassoulet to you. You will be hungering for the leftovers.