Sometimes the recipes that are real workhorses in our household evade documentation here. I discovered this dish early in 2013, when it was still frigid February, and in subsequent cold seasons have made it (or a variation on it) more times than I can count. By the time I realized, this year, it was such a keeper that I had to write about it, it was spring. And writing about warming things like braised lentils is anathema when there are green things sprouting. Now, though, there’s a chill in the air again. This recipe has bided its time.
First things first: I love pretty much anything David Tanis touches. Some of the recipes from his cookbooks are foundational in my kitchen (like his foccacia dough, which appears in various iterations three times on this site), and some of them are more aspirational (not all of us live in Paris for half the year, after all), which seems a nice balance to strike. I welcomed his New York Times City Kitchen column, too. But the number one contribution that David Tanis has made to my life was a little Bon Appetit feature he did in 2012.
One-Pot Comfort Food Recipes from David Tanis, the online version proclaims: inocuous enough. Almost boring. Usually, with round-ups like these, there are one or two stand-out dishes, and the rest aren’t much to talk about. But I have since made every single one of those dishes, and they are all exceptional. (Tim wrote about the pimentón chickens over potatoes a couple years ago, so I don’t need to do that for you. So good!) I don’t gush much so this effusive description is starting to make me uncomfortable. But, take my word for it. Cook from these recipes.
The lentil and garlic sausage cassoulet is the best and most useful recipe in there. Tanis claims that it is a simpler version of a cassoulet, if one can even call it that, and to be fair, he’s right: you don’t have to confit any duck legs for this. As written, however, I still find the recipe a bit involved (and not particularly “one-pot”). Tanis has you start by studding an onion with cloves, and then simmering it with some rind-on, slab bacon to make a stock. After it cools, you skim it, strain it, heat it again, cook the lentils in it, drain the lentils but reserve the liquid…you get the picture. I made it to the letter the first time and it was fantastic, but took the better part of an afternoon. Since then, I’ve set out to simplify it enough for an evening or for make-ahead dinner, and I’m happy to share that pared-down time commitment version with you. If you keep lentils in your pantry and some nice pork products as staples in your fridge or freezer like I do, this is a great last minute entertaining recipe, too.
P.S. I’ve been kind of-sort of Instagramming, if that’s your thing. I don’t think I’m very good at it, though.
David Tanis’s lentil & sausage cassoulet
Adapted from Bon Appetit, October 2012
Lots of notes:
1) You’ll want the liquid in which you cook the lentils to be highly flavorful. The dish is still good if you were to use water—and I offer tips about that in the body of the recipe—but it’s best to use a chicken or vegetable stock, sometimes doctored with a splash of white wine.
2) The quality of the sausage matters here, but the type of sausage, I’ve found, is flexible. The original recipe calls for the gorgeous French-style garlic saucisson or smoked kielbasa, but I can’t get my hands on those very frequently. I’ve used both smoke-cured and fresh sausages to equal success, browning the fresh sausage pieces before adding them to the dish. Just make sure to use a sausage whose flavor profile fits this garlicky, herbal dish: spicy Italian sausage or chorizo doesn’t work best here.
3) You’ll need to chop quite a bit to get the mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery) ready for this dish, which I know is daunting for some both in terms of time and in terms of having celery languishing in your crisper. I recently tried out making mirepoix in a big batch and freezing it ahead of time, and liked the results.
4) I frequently make this dish mostly ahead of time the night before a dinner party; then put the breadcrumbs on and bake the day-of. I’ve indicated where to stop in the recipe.
- 2-3 ounces bacon, thick-cut preferred, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch pieces
- 3 medium carrots, diced
- 2 ribs celery, diced
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 2 cups dried green or French green lentils
- 8 cups liquid: chicken stock, vegetable broth, water, or any combination (feel free to splash in some white wine)
- Several dashes cayenne pepper
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons coarsely chopped fresh sage (can substitute 1 teaspoon dried)
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme (can substitute 1 teaspoon dried)
- 12-16 ounces good quality cured/smoked or fresh sausage with a garlicky or herbed flavor profile, cut into 1-inch pieces (if the sausage is fresh, you may want to brown the pieces first)
- 3-4 cups breadcrumbs (fresh is best, panko works well in a pinch)
- 1/4 cup melted butter or olive oil
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Heat a heavy bottomed skillet over medium high heat. Add the bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until it renders a bit of fat and begins to turn golden. Do not let the bacon brown too much or begin to crisp.
- Add the carrots, onions, and celery. Reduce the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to become translucent and the vegetables are a tender but not mushy. This can take some time, up to 15 minutes. Season the vegetable mixture with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Add the garlic and fresh herbs and cook, stirring, one more minute. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Add the lentils and liquid to a large pot. If you are only using water as your liquid, season your water with some salt and a bay leaf, if you have one. Bring the lentils to a boil and then reduce to a simmer, cooking for 15-18 minutes, or until they are tender but not mushy. Drain the lentils, reserving their cooking liquid (it will have turned a bit murky but has that amazing peppery, pebbly lentil taste to it). Remove the bay leaf if you used it.
- Add the lentils to the bacon-vegetable mixture and stir to mix. Taste for seasoning and season with more salt and pepper if necessary (I find it’s generally necessary). Transfer the whole thing to a baking dish.
- Mix the breadcrumbs with the olive oil or melted butter. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Smooth the lentils in the baking dish and gently scatter the sausage pieces over the surface, pressing them in until they’re flush with the surface of the lentils. Pour the reserved cooking liquid into the baking dish until it just peeks above the top of the lentil mixture. (TO MAKE AHEAD: stop here, cover and refrigerate the lentils, and continue the next day with the breadcrumbs.) Scatter the breadcrumbs over the top evenly.
- Cover the dish with foil or a lid and bake in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the breadcrumb topping is dark golden, anywhere from an additional 10 to 20 minutes.
- Allow the cassoulet to rest 15 minutes before serving, if possible.
- Serve with a salad of greens in a mustardy, tangy vinaigrette.