In the small corner of the Mediterranean Basin called Greece, cooking beans is the epitome of tasteful simplicity and form an integral part of the Mediterranean diet.
For centuries, they have been a staple in local kitchen mainly because they were cheap and filling meaning they were feeding multiple family members at times when people were facing extreme poverty and starvation. They used to keep big amounts of beans and pulses in their store room (usually in the cool basement of their house) and they cooked them according to the seasonal vegetables from their garden and herbs from all over the countryside.
Apart from the obvious economic reasons, their consumption was very popular for religious reasons as well. Imagine long periods of fasting where animal products were strictly off the menu and, even those who could afford to put meat on the table abstained almost 200 days per year. Beans were the perfect choice for the family menu and the main source of protein, hence the house cookers were constantly attempting new ways of cooking and making delicious combinations out of their poor pantry.
That’s why the Greek Mediterranean cuisine demonstrates the most delicious beans recipes along with the fact that white beans soups and stews called “fasalada” are the national Greek dish. No, it’s neither moussaka nor souvlaki with tzatziki, guys! Only humble beans!
Baked giant beans aka Gigantes (= giants) plaki is the name of the traditional Greek recipe. The best Greek giant beans come from the wetlands of Prespes in Northern Greece and they are awarded PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) product. Their unique flavor originates from the nutrient-rich soil and the unique microclimate of the area. Unfortunately, the production is extremely low and Greece has to import large amount to cover local consumption. It’s more likely to eat imported giant beans from Turkey, which are fine, but if you ever find beans from Prespes go ahead and try them.
Do I have to mention their nutritional value? Ok, I will. Excellent source of protein, fiber, and antioxidants, it is either an appetizer (meze) or a complete scrumptious vegan meal.
Today, I will show you my giant beans recipe and it will be the basic one. 5 easy to find ingredients, plus the beans. Soak, boil, bake, and serve. It takes some time but it is a ridiculously easy recipe to make. You may add from vegetables and herbs to sausages and other deli meats. Your choice. But I usually like to keep it simple and make the difference by selecting fresh, organic vegetables and good quality beans. I suggest you try this recipe and then adjust it any way you like it.
If you cannot find giant beans, try lima or butter beans instead but try to find large ones. It is fine to use canned beans and save time. Just drain and rinse them well before baking. I have never used canned beans in my life and I really don’t know the taste of bean liquid. Therefore I cannot tell exactly what to do with it. If it is salty, adjust the salt accordingly, if it tastes funny, don’t add it to the sauce and put some water instead.
I always soak the beans overnight for at least 10 to 12 hours in order to become more digestible and to reduce the cooking time. Save more time and boil the giant beans up to 2 days ahead, put them in the fridge and bake them whenever you like.
On a hot summer day, I like to eat my baked giant beans at room temperature served on a homemade whole wheat bread, like a different kind of sandwich for dinner. You know, the dinners you don’t have the energy to cook from scratch and you have to improvise with what you already have in your fridge. Truth be told, the real challenge is to tempt your kids to eat a meal recently served. You usually hear the same line “Again? That was yesterday’s lunch” like it is against the law to eat leftovers and you are the worst mum in town. No, it is not, so hear me out, please!! Take your baked giant beans out of the fridge, toast slices of bread and lay the number of beans you like on top of the bread. Add chopped cherry tomatoes, sticks of cucumber and red pepper, Kalamata olives and feta. Then you call the family for dinner. “Guys, dinner is served. It’s a sandwich tonight”. They really love it! It works (almost) every time. If you try it at home, “Good luck” and let me know how it goes!!
Tip #1 During boiling: add a bay leaf in the water and enjoy its aroma. Don’t add salt to your pot of simmering beans because it takes more time to soften.
Tip #2 The only fail for this recipe could be the simmering time of the beans because this depends on the variety. We need them soft enough but not very tender because they are going to melt down in the oven. Take the fork and squash one bean. It has to look like the one in the photos which are soft enough to be squashed but not mashed.
Tip #3 I will be honest. Gigantes pair extremely well with feta cheese. It adds a complex, creamy, sweet and sour flavor at the same time. BUT feta contains calcium that may inhibit beans’ non-heme iron absorption. One way to keep the flavor and take full advantage of iron is to add feta crumbles on the top of your dish, no more than 50g (1.76oz). This is an ideal quantity to enjoy feta cheese and not to be affected by the inhibitory effect on iron absorption.
- 500g (1 pound) dried beans (giant beans or large lima or butter beans)
- 5 cups water
- 1 bay leaf
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 6 medium chopped carrots
- 1 big chopped onion
- 8 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
- 6 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 2 crushed tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste (optional)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- Fresh pepper to taste
- Soak dried beans for at least 8 hours. Drain, raise them and put them in a pot. Pour the water and boil over high heat. Remove the white foam that usually surfaces on the top of the water. Simmering time varies from half an hour to one hour. Check your beans to be soft but not overcooked (see the photo above). Reserve 3 cups of the cooking liquid.
- Preheat your oven to 200°C (392°F).
- Layer cooked giant beans in a baking pan (I used a round one) and add the rest of the ingredients with 2 cups of liquid from boiled beans. The liquid should cover all the beans because they are going to be cooked in it. Place the baking pan in the middle of the oven and don’t cover it.
- Stir gently 1-2 times and add more liquid if you want sauce with your beans. Bake approximately for one hour until beans are soft and golden brown.
- Sprinkle some fresh chopped parsley, crumbles of feta cheese and serve with crusty bread and a glass of white wine.