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Steve Sando, founder of Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Food in Napa, points out that a significant number of influential cooks in this country are women. One of them, Georgeanne Brennan, "inspired me to grow food in the first place." Incorporating her onion cassoulet in his cookbook, he also includes her thoughts on this vegetarian rendition:

"Although it seems heretical to think of cassoulet without its variety of unctuous meats, from duck confit to pork belly, I find my vegetarian version delivers the essence of the dish. The focus is on the beans, and the rich, caramelized onion confit provides the essential depth of flavor to bring the whole together. Topped with a goodly layer of buttered bread crumbs that bakes into a thick, golden crust for breaking through when time to serve, it is a dish worthy of a party, as is any good cassoulet."

Serves 6-8

1 pound dried Classic Cassoulet or Royal Corona beans, picked over and rinsed

2½ quarts water

1 tsp. kosher or sea salt

For the onion confit:

3 large yellow onions

3 Tbsp. unsalted butter

1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

1 bay leaf

For the tomato sauce:

1 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 cup canned crushed tomatoes

1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme

1/2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

1/2 tsp. finely ground pepper

To finish:

1 Tbsp. minced fresh thyme

1 tsp. kosher or sea salt

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1 Tbsp. minced fresh winter savory, or 1 tsp. dried

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

In a large saucepan, combine the beans, water and 1 tsp. of the salt. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the beans are tender and have no hint of crunch when bitten, about 2 hours. Remove from the heat and drain, reserving 1 cup of the broth.

While the beans are cooking, prepare the onion confit. Finely slice the onions, then chop them. In a skillet, melt the butter with the oil over medium-high heat. When the butter foams, add the onions, salt and bay leaf and stir to coat the onions with the butter. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have softened and reduced in volume, 10-15 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook, stirring from time to time, until the onions are quite soft and lightly browned, 15-20 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

To prepare the tomato sauce, in a small saute pan or other small pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the garlic and saute until soft, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, thyme, salt and pepper, reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and reserve.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

To assemble, in a large Dutch oven, warm 1/4 cup of the onion confit over medium heat, stirring to avoid scorching. Add the tomato sauce, 1 tsp. salt, 1½ tsp. of the thyme, and 1½ tsp. of the fresh winter savory (or 1/2 tsp. of the dried) and stir to mix well. Stir in 3/4 cup of the reserved bean broth and remove from the heat. Add half of the beans, and half of the remaining onion confit and fold the beans, confit and sauce together with a wooden spoon or spatula, being careful not to crush the beans. Add the remaining beans and the remaining onion confit and fold together gently just until evenly mixed.

Put the bread crumbs in a small bowl, drizzle with the butter and toss to coat evenly. Add the remaining 1½ tsp. thyme and remaining 1½ tsp. fresh winter savory (or 1/2 tsp. dried) and toss to mix well. Sprinkle the crumb mixture evenly over the top of the beans.

Bake until the juices are bubbling around the edges and a deep golden crust has formed on the surface, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes before serving. To serve, break through the crust with a spoon.

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