Vegan Mushroom Cassoulet

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Hey guys, it’s been a minute.

I’ve been struggling with mindfulness lately — a weakness I am sad to admit as me from a year ago had really thought she nailed this down. The truth is, sometimes my mind is drowning, sinking deeper into uncertainties and insecurities and fears for the world and the self. I am by no means suggesting that my struggles are unique, or extraordinary in severity. Not at all. This is the most anxiety-muddled period I have ever personally experienced, and how lucky I am to have this be the case. I’ll spare you the dive into details, though I thought that perhaps this post could be a little exercise for you and me both in practicing a more aware style of living life.

Mindfulness is the act of intentional observation, taking time to put thought into and comprehend the details of our lives. It is inherently non-judgmental, yet can be a way towards betterment and acceptance. Mindfulness does not have to be anything stressful or rigid. It doesn’t call for perfection. Mindfulness is something you just try to be mindful about. Am I losing you?

Here’s an example: I am a naturally anxious person. Sometimes, that anxiety becomes overwhelming, and all I can feel is too much. When there are a million things on your mind, they all get garbled up into a tidal wave about to crash. Mindfulness here is the act of stepping back and looking at each individual thing that is causing the anxiety. Even more, mindfulness is saying “hey, I’m really anxious right now, and that’s okay.” We’re not trying to necessarily overcome the anxiety or even reduce it. The goal here is to acknowledge what you’re feeling, and by doing so, coexist with your emotions rather then let them control you.

The next step would be to take a moment to look at where you are, be it are at work, in class, or laying in bed. As I write this, I am in the library. I’m sitting in an old wooden chair, wearing a NASA t-shirt. I am listening to “Rillo Talk” by Wild Child but one of my headphones is broken, so I’m only hearing parts of the song. The person across form me has a cup of coffee and glasses all the way back on his head. People around me are reading, working, chatting softly. If I look outside, I see a gray day with leafless trees. The florescent lights inside are a bit too bright to be comfortable.

All pretty banal, right? But in taking a moment to notice all of these details, I am able to step back and see that the world  keeps on existing regardless of whatever anxieties may cloud that.

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TL;DR: We do not exist in the past, or in the future, but in the now. Mindfulness is the practice of consciously paying attention to your present — the emotions you’re experiencing, the things you touch and smell and hear, your breathing, etc.

In attempting to lead a more mindful and intentional life, I’ve naturally tried to extend my practice to the food that I cook and eat. In the past months, I have become incredibly lazy in college when it comes to food. It got to the point where I would eat out a majority of the week, spending far too much money and scarfing down food that’s not great too quickly. It’s a wasteful, destructive behavior. Wasteful of money and plastics and such, destructive in that my routine becomes one of urgency, little self-care, and generally unhealthy habits.

My goal for this winter semester and going forward with my life is to reclaim my passion for food. I am trying to pay more attention to the sourcing of my ingredients and understanding the environmental ramifications of my plate. I am trying to create as little waste as possible, buying many of staples from bulk food stores and using re-usable jars and Tupperware. I have decided to meal plan and shop and cook for the week. When I sit down to eat, I try to take my time to appreciate my food and all of its flavors and textures. I am also working to practice consistent gratitude for my access to food and the time/ability to cook, for the opportunity to attend a good University and have access to education, for my loved ones, and for the privileges I have that so many people do not.

It is with that monologue that I present to you a recipe that I feel is a good representation for an intentional lifestyle. It is a vegan take on the traditional French cassoulet, one full of mushrooms and aromatics and love.

I have found that most vegetarian/vegan cassoulet recipes tend to opt for canned white beans in place of dry. This makes most vegetarian cassoulets better for a quick, weeknight dish. I personally believe that this is done so under the assumption that vegetarians tend to be young professionals (yuppies) that have such busy lives that they need fast dinners to prepare after a long day in the workforce. There is certainly some validity to that, though I would argue that this philosophy ultimately limits the scope of vegetarian cooking and the greater theme of connection to the planet that a plant-based lifestyle should facilitate.

Traditional cassoulet takes hours to cook the beans and braise tougher cuts of meat. As with most dishes of peasant origin, the time invested is rewarded with rich flavor.

Since my cassoulet has no meat, it relies on the flavor of the beans, along with some dried porcinis steeped with them and lots of other stuff, but mostly the beans. Those of you who have cooked dried beans before can attest that there is something special fresh cooked beans and the liquid in which they were simmering. The flavor is unlike anything else – deep and stock-like, though starchy as well.

Often, vegetarian cassoulet recipes will call for canned tomatoes, but I find that addition to take away from the beans that should be the highlight. When you take the time to soak beans overnight, watch over them for hours as they slowly soften, why would you mask that?

Making this cassoulet is an intimate process, as it requires time and thought and maybe a touch too much attention. From closely monitoring the beans for a needed addition of stock, to tying the knot to the bouquet garni, to watching the breadcrumb topping crisp and golden under the broiler – every detail matters.

This recipe takes a while, and I don’t make it very often. Deciding to create this meal is dedicating yourself to the ingredients and technique and time. Cooking this is a practice in being ever-focused on the immediacy of each element while still being aware that you’re working to a final dish. It’s all oddly therapeutic if you let it be.

It also tastes damn good.

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Vegan Mushroom Cassoulet
(Serves 8-10)

1 lb. dried white navy beans
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon olive oil, divided
1 small onion, diced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced + 1 more cut into chunks if you want
5 cloves garlic, minced (divided)
Bouquet garni (consisting of 4 bay leaves, 6 sprigs of thyme, and 6 sprigs of parsley, tied together with butcher’s twine)
2 star anise pods
1 cup dried porcini mushrooms, sliced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 quart vegetable Stock
2 quarts water
2 pints mixed mushrooms (I used a mix of white button and baby bella), thickly sliced
3 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
1 tablespoon minced parsley
Salt and pepper (this is a very taste-and-season-as-you-go recipe)
Breadcrumb topping (recipe below)

The night before, soak the beans in water (the water should cover the beans by about 6 inches) with a big pinch of salt. Drain the beans in the morning before you begin to cook.

In a large Dutch oven or other oven-safe pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the onions and carrots with a pinch of salt until soft, about 10 minutes. Add in 3 cloves of minced garlic and dried porcinis and cook for another minute. Stir in the tomato paste and cook until the paste turns a darker color. Add in the drained beans, bouquet garni, and star anise and then pour in the water and vegetable stock. Season with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt and ½ teaspoon ground black pepper. Turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 2 ½-3 hours, until the beans are about ¾ of the way cooked.

Preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Take out the star anise and bouquet garni and strain the beans (I just used a ladle and sieve to scoop out the cooking liquid), leaving some liquid in the pot but reserving the rest just in case. Put the beans back into the pot.

Meanwhile, heat up 1 teaspoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add in the mushrooms and season with ½ teaspoon kosher salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Add in the thyme leaves and ground nutmeg and sauté until the mushrooms become golden and the liquid from them has mostly cooked off. Stir in the mustard, vinegar, and minced parsley and take off the heat.

Mix the sautéed mushrooms into the beans, cover the pot and place on the lowest rack in your oven. Bake for 45, then remove the lid, and cook for another 30 minutes, until the liquid has reduced and the cassoulet is starting to develop a crust on top. Take out of the oven, dust with a generous portion of the fresh breadcrumbs (I used about ¾ cup), and then place back in the oven to broil (500-550 degrees) for five minutes so that the breadcrumbs become golden brown.

Serve the cassoulet garnished with fresh chopped parsley. Do yourself a favor and also have a fresh baguette on hand.

For Breadcrumb Topping

6 slices stale French bread, cubes
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 tablespoon lemon zest

Blitz all of the ingredients in a food processor until you get a slightly damp breadcrumb mixture.

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