Cassoulet is a traditional French dish that is typical of the hearty peasant fare of southwestern France. There are many variations but traditionally it would have pork, poultry (such as duck or goose more than likely), sausages and white beans. What makes it so rich and hearty is the cooking of the meats with the beans so they are full of flavor. In Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" it is suggested that while it can be made in one day often a 2-3 day leisurely process will result in the best flavors. As much as I would love to do this I opted first to try a much simpler and quicker variation. What I came up with is loosely based on 2 recipes I found on Epicurious.com; one for a "quick cassoulet" and one for a "white bean and tomato gratin".
To start I measured out 2 cups of dried Great Northern white beans. With all dried legumes you want to sort through them for any small pebbles or other organic non-edible stuff then rinse in cold water. Dump rinsed beans into a large stock pot and add 1 whole peeled clove of garlic, a couple of bay leaves, 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme and about 2 tsp of kosher salt. Add 8 cups of water and bring to a boil. Let boil for about 2 minutes then reduce heat and simmer covered for about 2 hours or until beans are tender but not splitting open. Drain the beans and discard the bay leaves and the thyme stems which are left behind.
Cook 4-5 sweet Italian sausages that have been pricked lightly with a fork all over in a large deep skillet in 1/2 cup of water for 10 minutes covered. Remove lid and cook for another 10 minutes letting the liquid evaporate and the sausages brown lightly. You will get some browned residue in the bottom of the skillet which will be very important for developing flavors so it is best to use a stainless steel pan for this and not non-stick! Remove the sausages to a plate to cool while you continue.
While the sausages are cooking chop 1 med. yellow or white onion and 1 clove of garlic. After you have removed the sausages from the pan drop heat to low and add about 2 tblsp of olive oil and let heat through then add the onion and saute until onion is softened. As you stir the onion scrape the pan and the onions will take on lots of deep brown from the pan drippings. Add the garlic and then season with salt and pepper. Take about 3 sprigs of thyme and starting at the tip run your fingers down to the bottom stripping off the leaves into the pan. Then add a couple of tsp of oregano and basil. Stir to combine then add 2 cans of diced tomatoes with liquid to the pan and stir scraping up all the brown drippings from the bottom of the pan. Allow to come to a simmer and taste for seasoning.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
By now the sausages will be cool enough to handle. Cut into 1" pieces. In a 13x9 baking dish or large casserole add the beans, sausage and tomato mixture and carefully stir to combine. Take 3-4 slices of crusty white French bread and tear off the crusts. These can be saved for other uses. Take the bread and tear into small pieces and saute in about 1 tblsp of olive oil until golden brown. Scatter across the top of the "cassoulet" and then if desired add fresh grated Parmigiano or Romano cheese. Bake for 1 hour uncovered until juices are bubbling on the sides and bread topping is browned. Serve warm or at room temperature with a nice green salad, slices of French bread and some red wine for a hearty French/Italian country style dinner.