Stress, Pain, and Cassoulet

Chicken and Sausage Cassoulet on– Chicken and sausage cassoulet soothes the savage beast –

My attachment to cooking borders on obsession at times, though not the kind of obsession I’m used to experiencing. While a piercing interest in something can manifest itself in all sorts of erratic behavior, much like a July Fourth sparkler, my passion for cooking is more of a slow burn, dominating a vast percentage of my random thoughts throughout the day. I don’t have a raging drive to cook; rather, it’s a pleasantly consistent pull towards all things culinary.

And, I’m good at it. At least that’s what I tell myself. When you’re good at something, sometimes you sail along at a good clip, taking your successes for granted and forgetting that there’s a heartbreaking thump of ineptitude awaiting anyone who stops looking at the details and decides to gloss over the activity at hand. You stop enjoying yourself. You become careless, more susceptible to outside stressors. And by “you,” I mean “me.”

I recently picked up a copy of Essential Pepin, a hefty new release from the master of French cuisine himself, Jacques Pepin. My sights have turned steadily towards French cooking lately, far more so than I’ve known in the past, and this book houses a huge collection of Pepin’s favorite recipes. As a intriguing sidecar, it also comes with a DVD that features our fine Chef sharing his more useful techniques with the reader. If you don’t have the money to take a class from Pepin, this DVD might just be the next best thing.

Once I received my prize in the mail, I set to studying the recipes like a coffee-crazed grad student about to enter into oral examinations. So many good things to make! So many good things to eat! I decided that my first experience with this cookbook would be a cassoulet, since I hadn’t made one in ages. I was suddenly awash in memories of tender beans tucked into a lush, meaty casserole. Yes, please, and now.

The day started out easily enough. Just a few simple shopping errands, and then back home to start our three hour journey into French home cooking. Unfortunately, the traffic gods were against us, as were the other minor deities in charge of retail efficiency. As we headed home, around 6pm, I realized we wouldn’t be eating until 9. If we were lucky.

Let the stress begin.

If there is one inalienable truth about cooking, it’s this: stress and food preparation do not mix well. There’s the normal stress of the kitchen, when you’re in the zone, but if you find yourself in the weeds and not managing your mental mise en place alongside your physical preparation steps, you’re in trouble. People get hurt, steps get forgotten, and possibly worst of all, your project is completely unedible. If you’re going to have a competent finished product – and experience any sort of joy from the act of cooking – then you need to sloooooooooow doooooowwwwwwnnnnn.

Well, I didn’t slow down. There were beans flying, poultry hitting the floor, a crimson spurt of tomato paste on the wall. I ignored these danger signs, as humans are wont to do, and dug myself deeper into my hole. Finally, when I drained my gorgeously spiced bean and chicken broth into a bowl to set aside, I thought I was out of the weeds. I was in the home stretch; all I had to do was combine the recipes parts into the casserole dish and “bake until dense with a crispy crust.”

As I went to add the bean broth back into the casserole dish, I noticed that my ever diligent boyfriend, Thad, had started washing dishes, something I always do (I like to keep an uncluttered kitchen, so I often wash dishes as I cook). Unfortunately, while not paying attention, I had left the heart and soul of the whole dish, the brilliantly savory broth, in a bowl in the sink. And there it went, down the drain.

The impending meltdown that had been building throughout a day fraught with running against the clock was no longer an abstract possibility – it was happening, and now. Thad found me in the basement, crying and cursing my own stupidity. My dish was lost and I was inconsolable.

Ok, ok, so I know that my outburst was likely a touch overdramatic (or, a lot overdramatic) but I learned something that day: slow down. Moving at light speed leaves you far more prone to mistakes, and gives you less room to recover from them. The toxic speed that stress propels ruins what can be a joyful, loving experience, and instead leaves you prostrate on the floor next to the washing machine, bawling like a four year old who didn’t get dessert.

To best honest, I find myself relearning this lesson over and over again in life. I’m a fast paced person, and I often move at break-neck speed through life. While it serves a purpose, it’s not terribly satisfying to try and catch snippets of the world as they blur past you, moving too fast to savor. I want to enjoy my time in the kitchen, and moreso, my time here on Earth. And in order to do that, I need to chill the f*** out.

So I collected myself, pulled some leftover chicken stock from the refrigerator, added a few flavorants for body, and poured it into the cassoulet. Gone were the sweet notes of onion and carrot, the rich acidity from my vine-ripened tomatoes, the gentle herbal layers provided by my bouquet garni. The dish wouldn’t be what I had wanted, but now I hoped that it would just be good. And guess what? It was fine. Tasty, even. Folks had seconds, then thirds, and rolled themselves over to the couch after their final servings. It had been a success, leaving me to learn a second lesson for the night: the toxic trap known as the blind need for perfection.

But that’s a different post.

Hearty French Chicken and Sausage Cassoulet on

Stress, Pain, and Cassoulet
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: French
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
If you’re looking for a hearty casserole that will keep you full for days, look no further than this cassoulet, adapted from Jacques Pepin. Hearty and warming, this dish is like the culinary equivalent of a snuggie, fresh from the dryer. If you like, you can use 2 cups of packaged chicken broth instead of making your own. Just omit the 1/2 chicken and 4 cups of warm water, skip step one, and then sautee two large boneless, skinless chicken breasts and shred before adding to the casserole in step 6.
  • 1/2 whole chicken, cut into 4 pieces
  • 4 cups of warm water
  • 1 pound dried Great Northern, navy, or Flageolet beans, picked over and rinsed
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 leek, washed, trimmed, and split in half
  • 1/2 onion, whole, peeled and stuck with a clove
  • 1/2 large carrot, split length-wise and cut into four pieces
  • 1 large tomato, peeled, halved, seeded and chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig of thyme
  • 2 sprigs of parsley
  • One 1/2 pound piece of pancetta
  • 3 cups cold water
  • 1 large garlic sausage or kielbasa, pricked with a fork
  • 1 large, thick bone-in pork chop (about 2 pounds)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 thick slices of stale French bread, turned to crumbs in a food processor (feel free to use Gluten-Free bread, which works beautifully here)
  1. Add chicken and warm water to a pot, and slowly bring to a boil. Turn heat down to low and barely simmer, uncovered, for 1-2 hours. Remove chicken from broth and set both aside to cool. Once the chicken has cooled, shred the meat with your hands and discard bones.
  2. In a large pot, add beans, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, leek, onion, carrot, tomato, garlic, tomato paste, bay leaf, thyme, parsley, pancetta, and cold water. Add 2 cups of the chicken stock you prepared in step one. Bring beans slowly to a boil, skimming off any froth that comes to the top. Once the beans are boiling, reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. Add sausage and cook for another 15 minutes.
  3. While the beans are cooking: Preheat the oven to 350°F (176°C). Season the pork on both sides with salt and pepper and set on a baking sheet. Roast for 50 minutes, then remove from heat and pour fat into a cup to reserve. Use a 1/4 cup of the bean cooking liquid to heat and deglaze the roasting pan, adding the liquid to the beans. Allow the pork to cool and cut into 1-inch pieces. Discard the bone and set meat aside.
  4. Once the beans are cooked – they should be tender but not mushy – turn off the heat and remove the sausage, pancetta, onion, carrot, leek, bay leaf, thyme, and parsley to a baking sheet. Discard vegetables and herbs.
  5. Remove the casing from the sausage and cut the sausage into 3/4 inch slices. Slice the pancetta into strips that are 1/2 inch by 3 inches long.
  6. If you turned off the oven, preheat it to 350 again. In a medium-sized casserole dish, layer the various ingredients into the casserole dish, starting with the beansollowed by alternating layers of meat and beans – make an individual layer of each meat: pork, sausage, pancetta, and shredded chicken, and ending with more beans. Moisten the bread crumbs in the reserved fat and spread them over the entire surface of the beans.
  7. Bake for 20 minutes, until a crust forms on top of the casserole. Break the crust with a spoon and push it into the beans, giving them a nice, nutty flavor. Cook for another 30 minutes. Another crust will form on top of the beans. Let the cassoulet rest 20-30 minutes outside of the oven before serving. Serve straight from the casserole dish, making sure everyone gets a good assortment of meats.

Cooking Resources:

If you like this recipe, you might be interested in the following resources:

  1. The rich history of cassoulet
  2. Order Essential Pepin from Amazon for half off! DVD included.
  3. A helpful list of dried beans and their substitutes
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Comments from other ninjas:

  1. MyKidsEatSquid says

    You’re SO right–stress and cooking don’t mix well. Over the holidays I tried not to push it but tried making three very different recipes at once–and none of them ended up that well.

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Seriously! And it’s so disheartening to fail at cooking, just to realize it was your own fault. Live and learn, right?

  2. thad says

    it was sooooo good, though!
    my fault for doing the dishes while you where in the midst of cooking!
    but tasty, it was!

  3. Casey@Good. Food. Stories. says

    Oh no, not in the sink! Of course, no one else does the dishes around here, so there’s no danger of something being washed down the drain – just knocked over by clumsy me.

  4. Jodi - Garlic Girl says

    Aaaww, I love this post. I can relate to the craziness that can happen in the kitchen when you’re excited about cooking something. Last night I was stepping in powdered sugar while I was trying to squeeze in a batch of pistachio Russian tea cookies before I went to bed. And Thad’s a good boyfriend, I can tell. : )

  5. Kerry Dexter says

    interesting how the lessons each of us needs to learn keep presenting themselves, isn’t it? hey, you took another step on that…
    wondering what sort of adjustments you’d suggest to make a vegetarian cassoulet?

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      I’m not sure how to make a veg cassoulet, unless you layered in meat analogs and treated a veg stock like the instructions treat the chicken/bean stock. If you give it a try, let me know how it goes!

  6. Cookin' Canuck says

    This is such a good lesson, wrapped up in this bowl of cassoulet. I consistently need to remind myself to slow down and enjoy the process though, admittedly, that reminder needs to happen a lot more often than it actually does. Great post, Stephanie!

  7. Alena says

    I don’t like to cook because no matter how perfectly I follow the recipe, it never turns out the way I expected and the way I think it ought to taste. I always taste…inferiority. Your post made me have an epiphany. The part about washing dishes and cleaning as you cook? I do that too!! Maybe it’s this distraction that takes away focus from lovingly preparing a delicious dish. My grandma makes a huge mess in the kitchen when she cooks and only cleans after everyone as eaten. Her food always tastes perfect. In addition to slowing down, maybe it’s a matter of not being so OCD about tidying up. Though I’m not sure if I’ll ever have any with that!

    • Stephanie Stiavetti says

      Well if love makes food taste better, I guess it would follow that stress makes food taste… bitter? Or just less good. An interesting observation. Hrmmmm.

  8. kyleen says

    I’m exactly the same way about baking. It’s not like I notice that I have an obsession until I realize two hours later that I really didn’t have to bake all those brownies or cookies or pies. It just… happened. I’m mostly a baker, but I do dabble in cooking every now and then. This cassoulet looks fab. All I want to do is snuggle up on the couch in front of the TV with a bowl of this!

  9. Jery says

    This was was a fabulous post. I feel like I could smell the dish! So jealous! Glad everything turned out well in the end. I wish I had a passion for cooking. I am still trying to “find” my passion for household chores.

  10. Jon says

    Yep! speed kills. We all have a ‘somewhat’ similar story of kitchen mayhem if we’ve been cooking for a few years or more. I’ve not dumped broth or stock down the drain, but I have made a few of the classic mistakes… for example, trying a new dish for company, etc. My worst, or most memorable, was the occasion my father and uncle traveled East from Seattle on a whirlwind tour of the country to visit family and friends as age and illness were making future travel for my father unlikely. He had already survived two bouts of cancer. I had not seen him in years and was pumped to show off my relatively new skills in the kitchen. I planned a frittata and thought using my new non-stick skillet would be the ticket. Wrong!!! The adage to not prepare new dishes for company should include new cookware as well. A pitiful, miserable, lump resembling anything but a frittata was served.

    There are times when we do not know the longer outcome of what occurs in daily life. If the egg lump wasn’t enough, I would months later learn of a third invasive diagnosis of cancer. He would not survive this time and, sadly, he would never know the passion I have developed for Cajun and French (love Pepin, too) cuisine and for proper technique. Apparently, the kitchen connects more dots in life than we might allow for.

    Along those line… it’s difficult to find people who enjoy cooking and who can write about in ways that connect the dots from writer to reader. I’m new here today and think you connect the dots quite nicely. You inspired me to respond, right? I’ll keep reading, if you’ll keep writing. Good job Stephanie.