Last weekend, I found a package of giant dry white beans or ‘gigantes’ in my cupboard. These tasty plump beans are a staple in Greek cuisine, and the mere mentioning of the word ‘Greek’ always sends my mind to the time my best friend & I had pizza & cheap wine in her shoebox-size apartment in the ‘Lange Vlierstraat’ in Antwerp. I know it’s a bit of stretch and a far cry from the usual images of breezy seaside tavernas with vine-wrapped trellises and ouzo. Bear with me, please.
While most young adults live with their parents when they’re still in college, my friend lived solo’ and her digs were usually the place we’d hang out at to channel our inner-dork. Not that ‘two-buck-chuck’ & pizza nights were so unusual during our college years, but that night in particular, she was preparing to move in with her now American ex-husband and the purpose of our gathering was to
get silly on cheap wine to facilitate her move into her fiance’s beautiful house on the left banks of the ‘Schelde’ river in Antwerp, and mostly to get rid of the stuff that really shouldn’t see the light of day when you’re twenty-something and about to engage in a serious relationship of co-habitation with the other sex.
On a side note, per my mother, W. & I have had a life-long reputation of unbridled ‘silliness’. ‘Onozel doen’, like mom would say. As a matter of fact, with W. living in Florida, we speak over the phone weekly. Or at least attempt to hold a conversation, which usually starts off with W. bursting out in a suffocating fit of snorting laughter the minute I answer my phone, muttering “I’ll call you right back” in between giggles, which spirals me into a similar guffaw before I even know what it is she wants to share with me. It’s like our ‘tween-gene’ is activated the minute we connect, and we are instantly transported back to the late 80’s.
Anyway, we digress… Thirty odd years ago or so (Gah! I’m old), we found ourselves slumped back on her couch, plastic Dixie cup of wine in hand, and thumbing through an old photo album with letters & pictures of her long forgotten high school pen pal: Kostas. He was Greek. He was twenty-something compared to her sweet sixteen. He had curly black hair, no bodily shame and he was censored by my friend’s prudence by means of black tape. The naughty picture in question was carefully glued in her album, with a strategically placed hand-crafted ‘trap door’ of black tape, which could be lifted to behold all of Kostas’ glory. Like a mini-peep show from the comfort of home, so to speak. I also remember he later came to visit from Greece with his friend while we were much older and already in college, and he turned out to be quite full of himself and a royal penis, pardon the pun.
If you think you can picture the ridiculousness of two grown women giggling like pimpled high school girls over a nude picture of a not-so-good looking young man, think harder and then multiply the dorkiness level by tenfold. That’s us! So any time I hear the word ‘Greek’ now, I have to think about Kostas. And that naughty trap-door picture that had us doubled up in silly laughter.
GREEK BAKED BEANS
(‘Fasolia Plaki’… adapted per my own flavor preferences)
– 1 package of dry ‘gigantes’ or large white beans (500 gr or 0.5 lbs)
– 3 large juicy tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 1 15oz can of diced tomatoes)
– 1 small can of ROTEL ‘mild’ tomatoes & chillies
– 2-3 roasted red bell peppers, peeled & diced (the jarred kind are fine too)
– 6 cloves of garlic, grated or minced
– 1 large onion, diced
– 2 Tbsp of tomato paste
– 2 Tbsp of dried oregano (or a few sprigs of fresh oregano, chopped fine)
– 4 Tbsp of dried parsley (or a handful of fresh parsley, chopped fine)
– 2 Tbsp of fresh dill, chopped fine
– 3 bay leaves
– 1 Tbsp of red pepper flakes (*)
– salt to taste
– 2 cups of the boiling water from the beans
(*) when using Rotel tomatoes & chillies, 1 Tbsp will do you just fine and will turn the dish medium spicy. For mild heat, leave out the red pepper flakes al together. For NO heat, leave out the red pepper flakes and use 2 more tomatoes instead of a can of Rotel chillies, and season with some pepper. For more heat, add more red pepper flakes. You get my drift…
Soak beans overnight in a large container of plain unsalted water, with at least 2-3 inches of water topping the beans once submerged. Let them soak on the counter.
The next day, drain beans from the soaking water, and place in a large pot. Bring beans to a boil and let simmer until tender, but still with a bit of bite. The ‘older’ the beans, the longer this stage will take, but for my 6-8 month old package of dry beans, this was approx. 75 min.
Drain beans, reserving approx. 2 cups of the bean water, and set aside.
If using fresh tomatoes, carve an ‘X’ in the bottom your tomato and flash-boil for about 1 minute in the boiling bean water (or a pot of boiling water). The edges of the ‘X’ will start to curl and this process will make peeling your tomatoes significantly easier. Peel each tomato, cut in quarters, remove seed-cores and dice the flesh in small cubes. Try to reserve some of the juice, but don’t worry too much about that.
While the beans boil, preheat oven to 350F. In a heavy oven-proof skillet (I used a cast iron skillet, but you can also use a regular pan and then transfer everything into a casserole), sauté the diced onions until tender and translucent, approx. 5 min. Add tomato paste, garlic, roasted & peeled bell peppers and red pepper flakes, and sauté for another few minutes to ‘cook out’ the tomato paste a bit. Then add diced tomatoes (with juice), can of Rotel chillies and all of the herbs. Stir the sauce and cook for another 10-15 minutes to reduce and thicken a little bit.
Fold cooked beans in the tomato sauce, and pour the reserved bean water over the beans until they are ‘just’ submerged. Stick bay leaves in the pan and bake, uncovered, in a 350F oven for another 75-90 min until the juices have evaporated. The top will be slightly crispy.
Serve hot with crusty bread. Or with an omelet, like I did.