- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2008

There’s nothing more traditional than serving a big pot of chili when a bunch of friends come over to watch a big game — basketball, baseball or football — but sometimes I like to mix it up.

Last year, I surprised my husband and friends with this rustic casserole of creamy white beans, chicken sausages and a touch of balsamic vinegar. It was a big hit. I served a big green salad with artichoke hearts and tiny plum tomatoes dressed with lemon-mustard vinaigrette. Hot crusty slices of French bread completed this one-dish meal.

A baked white bean casserole may conjure up a tiny bistro discovered on a trip to France, but a labor-intensive project such as an authentic cassoulet can be simplified merely by adding domestic sausages and leaving out duck confit, goose and pork for an American touch.

With all the different cooked sausage varieties available, you can substitute your favorite according to your taste. Consider artichoke and garlic, Cajun-style andouille, chicken-garlic, lamb or even duck sausage. Remember to make sure the sausage is already cooked because that cuts down on your total cooking time.

Soaking beans overnight or using the quick-soak method, though not a must, shortens cooking time and results in more evenly textured, creamy beans. You can change the water while soaking and then dispose of the bean water, which can cause digestive problems when used in the cooking process.

Traditional cassoulet is cooked in a cast-iron or earthenware casserole that is very wide on top to allow for the most amount of crust. There is nothing quite as tempting as putting your spoon in the casserole and watching the crisp, luscious crust fall away into the velvety beans and sausage stew. I like to use day-old French bread crumbs for the crust.

I know it might not be the traditional beverage for a football game, but a glass of red wine such as a California Rhone, zinfandel or shiraz would pair beautifully. A big-flavored beer would work as well. For dessert, a platter of chocolate brownies is bound to hit the spot. Enjoy.

Help is on the way:

• Before soaking the beans, pick them over and remove any debris.

• To soak overnight, place the beans in a large container and cover with cold water by a few inches. Let soak overnight or at least 6 hours, changing the water once, and drain for cooking.

• To use the quick-soak method, cover beans with cold water in a pan and bring to a boil. Remove the pot from the heat, cover and let steep for 1 hour. Drain and use for cooking.

• To toast bread crumbs, place a few slices of day-old French bread (with the crusts) on a baking sheet and toast in a 325-degree-oven for about 10 minutes or until dry and lightly browned. Break into pieces and process into crumbs in the food processor.

• This can be multiplied for larger groups.

White bean and sausage stew

2 cups dried white beans, such as Great Northern, picked over, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 cup white wine

1 cup diced drained canned tomatoes

1 pound cooked sausage such as chicken, lamb or duck, cut into ½-inch slices

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs (see above)

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

Place the beans in a bowl and cover with cold water for at least 6 hours and up to overnight. If you prefer to use a quick-soak method, bring the beans and water to a boil and cook for 2 minutes, cover, and let stand for 1 hour. Drain the soaked beans and set aside.

In a medium Dutch oven, heat the olive oil on medium heat. Saute the onion for about 5 to 7 minutes or until softened. Add the garlic and saute another minute.

Add the broth, wine, tomatoes and beans. Simmer, covered for about 11/4 hours, or until the beans are tender and beginning to fall apart, pushing down some of the beans with the back of a spoon to create a creamy consistency. (The time will vary by the age of the beans.)

Add the sliced sausages, uncover and reduce for about 5 minutes or until slightly thickened. Add the balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper and mix to combine. Cook for 3 more minutes to mellow the vinegar flavor. Taste for seasoning.

To serve: Preheat the broiler. Transfer the beans into an ovenproof gratin dish.

In a small bowl, combine the Parmesan, bread crumbs and parsley and sprinkle evenly over the beans. Place under the broiler for 3 to 4 minutes or until the bread crumbs and cheese are browned but not burned. Serve in warm soup bowls. Makes 6 servings.

Diane Rossen Worthington is the author of 18 cookbooks, including “Seriously Simple Holidays.” To contact her, go to www.seriouslysimple.com.

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