For someone who considers her typical days to be fairly mundane, it does seem I’ve got quite a soft spot for all things unconventional.
I’d trace this penchant for the eccentric back to my grade six art class with Miss Tarnofsky. Miss T (we all thought it should stand for “Terror”) was the strictest, most demanding and discerning teacher in our grade school, and we learned to tread carefully in her presence. With her short black bob (the bangs so severe they looked as if they’d been drawn with a ruler) and her terse directives in the classroom, all she had to do was raise an eyebrow in disapproval and even the most chatty of students would immediately be silenced. Her classes were always impeccably organized and presented; she was both an imposing disciplinarian and an admirable role model.
One day, Miss T asked us to produce a painting on a subject of our own choosing. I was determined to prove my artisitic prowess and gain her approval. I labored for the entire hour over my still life of a vase and flowers.
Meandering among the desks to assess our ouevres in silence, Miss T paused at the desk of SS, who was, even at the tender age of twelve, already christened the group’s science nerd (if only The Big Bang Theory had been broadcast back in those days, SS’s fate may have turned out very differently). Miss T grabbed the watercolor canvas and held it aloft as if she’d just rescued a kitty from a treetop. The rest of us stared incredulously at a large rectangle filled with muddy splotches, swirls and ragged brush strokes in various shades of grey. It looked like an oil slick floating atop a mud puddle.
“This is the best piece of artwork in the class,” she pronounced. “Unlike all the others, this one has feeling. It has a voice. It has personality.” She lifted it a little higher, as if to impress upon us the importance of her final proclamation: “This painting, boys and girls, exhibits a soul.”
Well, that was all I needed to hear. From that point onward, I felt totally validated searching for that kernel of soul within every nerd, misfit, outcast or rebel or iconoclast I encountered, seeking the unspoken connections between us.
Or maybe it was just written in my genes. As I grew older, I began to recognize my mom’s quiet idiosyncrasies, too. Almost daily, my mom would lament how, if only she were thinner (she was obese most of her life), she’d don the most colorful, ostentatious, tacky outfits she could find. Instead, she channeled her outlandish desires into her earring collection. On her way out the door on Saturday evenings, she’d hold up a pair of tomato-red-and-sunset-orange dangles, or fuscia and green dotted hoops, or sparkly faux-jeweled floral studs and ask my sisters and me, “Are these too young for me?” To which we’d readily respond with an energetic, “No, of course not!”. In the last photo I have of her, a month before she died, my mom is sitting in an armchair in The CFO’s apartment wearing a rainbow-striped tunic and massive, glittery silver hoops dangling from her earlobes.
At Canadian Thanksgiving a few weekends ago when we visited with my long-lost cousins, I discovered just how unconventional are the foods I regularly eat. What I (and, to some extent, the HH) now consider “normal” food, as I was reminded with a start that weekend, is still pretty bizarre to most “regular” eaters.
Nevertheless, I love my unconventional meals! When we celebrated on our own, the HH and I enjoyed a sumptuous feast, entirely comprised of healthy, whole-food offerings. I decided to re-create a traditional cassoulet, something my older sister and her husband have enjoyed as their Easter dinner for years. The traditional French stew is redolent with charcuterie, flageolet beans and a rich, savory broth. It’s also slow-cooked until the entire thing is saturated with fat from the flesh and bones of the meat–not exactly something that called out to me for reproduction. But when I considered the concept of a long-simmered, toothsome stew, that appealed mightily. So I went searching for vegan cassoulet recipes, and found one in Crescent Dragonwagon’s Passionate Vegetarian.
Although Dragonwagon’s original didn’t much appeal to me (it was replete with with several types of processed faux meat), I loved her idea of adding a full bulb of roasted garlic to render the sauce more robust and to add a touch of umami. Apart from that one addition, this recipe is entirely my own.
This stew is thick, filling, the sauce warm and comforting as a beckoning fireplace in winter. With just the right balance between hearty, meaty and saucy, this unusual rendition of the classic makes good use of my veg-based meat crumbles instead of all the processed stuff, and adds its own kick of umami from an unexpected source. I’ve decreased the baking time, too, as traditional cassoulet is an all-day affair (and I wanted you to have plenty of time to enjoy a big plateful of this delightful stew).
This cassoulet may just be the perfect dish to transform an otherwise mundane day into something exceptional. Enough to make you appreciate “unconventional” all the more.
And a Few Newsy Tidbits:
- I’m delighted to be a guest poster on the xgfx blog this week! If you’re looking for a healthy (and perhaps unconventional?) dessert, check out my Marbled Halvah!
- The ebook version of my cookbook, Sweet Freedom, is being offered at the incredible price of 50% OFF over at Vegan Cuts for the next 3 days! The sales have been brisk–they’ve already sold over 70% of the limited number of ebooks–so head over to get your copy pronto!
- The voting for the SHAPE Best Blogger Awards continues until October 28th. I’d love your support to help bring a vegan, gluten-free blog to the top of their list! You can vote here.
Unconventional Vegan Cassoulet
Although it takes a bit of prep time, the final product is stellar. And since the recipe makes a hefty-sized stew, you can freeze leftovers for another meal at a later date. If you prepare the meat and cook your beans in advance, you’ll shorten the prep time considerably. I’ve toasted the bread crumb topping separately and pass it in a bowl for each serving as one would parmesan cheese with pasta, as I found it became too browned if baked on top of the casserole.
1 batch meat crumbles (recipe here)
Beans and Sauce:
2 cups (480 ml) dry white beans (flageolet, Great Northern, navy), soaked in room temperature water overnight
3 cups (720 ml) vegetable broth or stock
1 bay leaf
1 full head of garlic, roasted (see instructions)
2 Tbsp (30 ml) extra virgin olive oil, preferably organic
2 large onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 medium carrots, trimmed, peeled and diced
1 large can (28 oz or 596 ml) diced tomatoes, with juice
1/2 cup unsweetened cranberry juice
10-20 drops unflavored liquid stevia, to your taste
1/3 cup (80 ml) chopped fresh parsley or 2 Tbsp (30 ml) dried parsley
1/4-1/2 tsp (1-2.5 ml) dried thyme, to your taste
1/2 tsp (2.5 ml) dried marjoram
1/4 tsp (1 ml) ground cloves
1 tsp (5 ml) celery seeds
salt and pepper to taste
3 thick slices of your choice of gluten-free bread, or 2 gluten-free bagels
Make the meat: Prepare the meat as directed and set aside. If you’re making the entire cassoulet in one day, you can roast your garlic at the same time as the meat bakes.
Make the beans and sauce: Once the beans are soaked, drain and rinse them. Place the beans in a large pot with the broth and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then lower heat, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the beans are soft and the liquid is almost entirely absorbed, about an hour. Remove from heat.
Meanwhile, roast the garlic: keeping the bulb intact, slice across the top of all the cloves, exposing the top of each one. If desired, drizzle about a teaspoon (5 ml) olive oil on top of the cloves. Wrap the entire bulb in aluminum foil and bake in a 350F (180C) oven until the cloves are soft and beginning to brown, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.
Heat the 2 Tbsp (30 ml) oil in a large frypan over medium heat. Add the onions, 4 cloves of garlic and carrots, and sauté until the onions are translucent, 7-8 minutes. Lower heat and stir in the tomatoes, cranberry juice, stevia, parsley, thyme, marjoram, cloves, celery seeds and salt and pepper. Take the whole bulb of roasted garlic and add the inside of each clove by squeezing it out from the bottom (as you would a toothpaste tube). Mash up the softened cloves so that they are blended into the sauce and stir them into it. Add the bean mixture (you can leave the bay leaf in it; remove it before serving the cassoulet) and stir gently to coat all the beans. Cover the frypan and allow to simmer for about 5 minutes.
Assemble the cassoulet: Preheat oven to 300F (150C). Grease a large (2 quart or 2 liter) casserole dish or spray with nonstick spray.
Place about half the beans and sauce mixture in the bottom of the casserole and spread evenly. Top with the entire recipe of meat crumbles, then spread the remaining beans and sauce over the top. Cover and bake for about an hour, until the mixture is bubbly and browned on the edges. If it becomes too dry, add 1/4 cup (60 ml) extra vegetable broth (and up to 3/4 cup or 180 ml). Serve with toasted bread crumbs sprinkled over each serving, if desired. Makes 6-8 servings. May be frozen.
For the breadcrumbs: Process the bread or bagels with 2 Tbsp (30 ml) olive oil in a food processor. Heat in a nonstick frypan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the crumbs are browned to desired degree. Pass a bowl of crumbs at the table, with the cassoulet.
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