CHRISTMAS DINNER 2022
Chacun à son Goût
Uncredited linocut from the website Zazzle
Today: I’m laundering cloth napkins.
And ironing them.
This is my kind of housework: I like to see things clean and shine.
A tiny red streak on white fabric catches my eye.
My thumb is dripping blood onto the freshly ironed cloth.
I start a new wash, spraying the bloody napkin with spot remover, find a latex glove for my right hand to prevent the blood from spreading, and then check over my stack of napkins.
The soiled linens are a result of a small gathering we held on Christmas day with friends we cherish.
The blood is fresh, emerging after I washed a newly sharpened knife with a sponge, and sliced my thumb.
Having the sharpest knives comes with caution.
Choosing the Menu
For Christmas dinner, we invited a few friends to join us to celebrate, and I spent days thinking about what I could prepare that would suit both vegetarians and omnivores, and settled on a white bean cassoulet.
Once I’d chosen cassoulet as the main course, the other dishes were easy to prepare without meats: a green salad and a spicy corn polenta-with-peppers-and-cheese to pair with the legumes.
Although I had spent my adult life making countless versions of beans–from Mexican refried pintos to Persian ash soup–this was the first time I tried a recipe for cassoulet with stringent instructions.
The French preparation calls for a long, relaxed warming of the white beans to ensure a fully cooked legume: a process that takes three days.
You don’t just bring the beans to boil: you coax them along, encouraging them to cook–ever so slowly–alternating between a simmer and a lazy stewing.
Purpose is to keep the silhouette of the bean intact, rather than feasting on shirtless beans that bare their nakedness.
Rediscovering the Humble Bean
I had no idea when I embarked on the adventure that the method would bring out the full umami in both meat and meatless dishes.
The recipe urged me to find dried beans if I had no source for fresh beans: that meant beans could be no older than one year.
I live in a hip community and yet I had no way of knowing how long beans have dried and aged.
Best I could do was find a package of beans from a grocer I trust.
Growing up in Iran, we–as children–had the job of picking out the stones from the dried beans and then washing them.
We were instructed to separate bean-from-rock and then rinse the beans three times.
After I returned to the US after graduating from high school overseas, I took my training to heart: When I bought beans, I scoured them for pebbles and washed them three times.
I discovered–over time–that American beans had almost no pebbles and required little washing, unlike those we got in the Middle East.
More recently, I found that technology overtook my vintage bean recipes: you can cook beans in a crock pot or ultra pot and reduce time by-half.
Technology beckoned me, but tradition won out: the cassoulet recipe called for French mindfulness, and I decided to cook the beans long and slow.
My honey-bear, newly vegetarian, helped me out by reading about legumes, and told me the bean-part is called a pulse.
Beans add protein and fiber, plus a host of vitamins to the diet: a recipe for a healthy meal.
Adding corn will supplement the dish with the amino acid methionine, which beans lack.
Uncredited photo from “Krrb Blog” on the website, Thrillist.
I first read about creating meals without meat in Frances Moore Lappé’s 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet.
Lappé, an Oregon native, writes about the effects of farming and ranching on the environment in addition to ways to eat meatless while meeting nutritional needs.
Indigenous Americans (and other writers) talk about the Three Sisters: beans, corn and squash that, when paired, complement one another as a complete meal.
In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass (2015), Robin Wall Kimmerer (Potawatomi) reminds readers that beans, corn and squash nurture each other as they grow, a metaphor reminiscent of the interconnectedness of living beings.
And while most of my diet is meatless, I have learned how to prepare delicious chicken, duck and pork, and savor Oregon’s native fish.
For two days, the beans summered on the beans on the stove top.
On the third morning, I prepared a roux of garlic, onions, carrots and thyme for the cassoulet paste.
I took half the beans for the vegetarians and placed them in a ramekin, and broke two meat-free patties I tucked under the beans, covering them with vegetable stock.
The casserole tasted rich but not too salty: my fear of using meatless creations is they pack too much salt.
I then turned to the traditional cassoulet, and lined a porcelain crock with duck breast pieces that had marinated with thyme, salt and pepper.
Although the recipe calls for pork, too, I stuck with duck alone.
I read that the signature flourish for cassoulet is a duck leg atop the beans, so I layer three legs on the meaty dish after covering the beans with stock.
While the vegetarian dish stewed in faux sausage, the meat casserole steeped in duck juice from top to bottom–and bottom to top–for hours.
Once the duck legs are nearly cooked, I placed them in a cast iron skillet and let them bake some more, after draining the liquid from the pot, and setting it aside to let the fat rise from the stock.
I figure the dish absorbed enough fat that removing the excess seemed sensible if not authentic.
The stock was then reunited with the beans–sans graisse–and melded seamlessly.
The kitchen smelled heavenly, laden with umami, and the casseroles were ready before the guests arrived.
We then made corn grits and tossed a green salad.
Everything was ready when out guests arrived, and we ate homemade bread brought by one guest, drank wine gifted from another, and dug into baked brie-en-croute.
I served both versions of the cassoulet: the vegetarian turned out sumptuous and sage-y, while the duck dish melted on your tongue, full of flavor and spice.
The feast turned out to be a delicious adventure and we talked into the long ours of the night while eating home-made jelled dessert.
As we chatted over cookies, one of the guests held up his napkin, saying, “it is too pretty to use.”
I assure him I don’t mind washing them.
31 December 2022
I honor the Native Peoples on whose ancestral homelands we gather here in the Pacific Northwest.
Blog dedicated to Alistair, Luke & Molly, and, of course, my vegetarian honey-bear.
Yum! Do you know the book “original Local?”
No: but I will check with our library–cheers