Easter is less than two weeks away and the period of Lent is well under way. It's a difficult time for people who fast, being deprived of meat and dairy products. I'm not included in that category but I do know that for some people it's worse than others. Many crave juicy steaks and fried eggs, many dream of feta cheese pies and meatballs and most of them wait anxiously for Easter Day to come in order to enjoy the oh-so-incredible lamb.
In Greece, on Easter Day, every household roasts a whole lamb on a spit (sorry for any vegetarians out there but that's the tradition) and enjoy a "kokoretsi" which is (vegetarians look away!) seasoned offal like sweetbreads, kidneys, lungs, hearts that is wrapped with lamb intestines and roasted on a spit. I know it sounds kind of gross for those of you who are not familiar with it, but let me tell you, it tastes absolutely marvellous. But that's another post and of course I must be in Greece to write it because in Holland you can't go to your butcher and ask for a kokoretsi. When you explain to him what it is, he'll probably have a heart attack right then and there.
Now, what does lamb has to do with beans? Well, ostensibly nothing, but for me it's the closest thing to meat that you can have without actually having meat. So, in essence you get all the nutrients and fibers without all the toxins. Isn't that great? When I say beans though, I don't mean the small little pathetic canned beans that most people eat. I'm talking about dried giant Greek beans, perhaps the best beans in the world.
Giant white Greek dried beans are absolutely delicious legumes. They're so fulfilling and substantial and in Greece we use them to make an excellent dish. Baked giant beans or "Fasolia gigantes sto fourno" which is my favorite white bean dish. The beans are first cooked in water to soften and then you smother them with a deliciously tomato and red pepper sauce and you bake them in the oven until they crisp up. As with any other Greek dish, every home cook adds his or her own twist. My twist is a rather fiery one. Hot red chili peppers in addition to boukovo. Boukovo is the Greek equivalent to dried red pepper flakes and it is hot. Add too much and the dish is ruined.
So this is a hot and spicy Greek dish. At least my version is. Of course you can adjust it to your own tolerance of heat, which is the beauty of it, but there are certain ingredients you just can't toy with. One of them is the parsley, flat-leaf parsley not the curly, useless, only-for-decoration one. Parsley is so underestimated it bothers me. It is a beautiful herb with such a fresh and aromatic flavor that really complements the giant beans, balances the hot notes and brings the whole dish together.
It's a main dish that can feed and satisfy a whole family. I serve it with a side of feta cheese, a big chunk of feta cheese that I sprinkle with Greek dried oregano and drizzle with a bit of olive oil, and some wonderfully tasty Kalamata olives. Make sure you also have lots of bread around to gather up all that flavorful sauce that covers the giant beans.
What's very interesting about this dish is that, apart from being a hearty main dish, it's also a traditional Greek mezes, served on a small plate and accompanied by ouzo or beer. So keep that in mind the next time you plan to have friends over, have a mezes dinner party with some tasteful little plates of yummy food, including these delightful beans.
Fasolia Gigantes sto Fourno-Plaki (Greek Hot & Spicy Baked Giant Beans)
You can use any kind of red hot chili pepper you prefer or can find. It's a matter of personal taste as well as heat-tolerance. I used Thai chili peppers because I love how hot they are but beware, don't use them unless you enjoy enormous amount of heat in your mouth. I wouldn't suggest using them or any other extremely hot chilies unless you're familiar with them.
If you can't stand the heat of chilies or simply don't like them omit them from the recipe altogether.
Boukovo I suppose is hard to find outside of Greece but you can use dried red pepper flakes or the Turkish equivalent, Pul Biber, or Aleppo pepper, which are very much like boukovo. I wouldn't suggest omitting boukovo from the recipe. It is not that hot if you use a small amount, as in this recipe, and it gives a great flavor to the dish.
Yield: 4-6 main-course servings
500 g giant Greek white dried beans or dried large butter beans
2 1/2 cups bean cooking liquid
1/3 cup olive oil
2 medium-sized onions, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
400 g fresh tomatoes, skinned, seeded and cubed or canned diced tomatoes
3 tsp tomato paste
2 large red bell peppers, cut into thick strips
A pinch of sugar
1/4 tsp boukovo or dried red pepper flakes
2 fresh red hot chilies (optional)
2 Tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley including stalks, chopped, plus extra to serve (only leaves)
Soak the dried beans by placing them in a large bowl and filling it with tap water so that the beans are completely covered. They need to be soaked for 12-16 hours. It's better to do this overnight.
Drain them in a colander and rinse them very well under running water. Then put them in a large pot, cover them with water and bring to the boil over high heat. Turn down the heat to low and let beans cook for about 1 hour until they're soft but not cooked all the way. Ten minutes before they're done sprinkle some salt in the water. Don't add salt as soon as you start cooking the beans because they will become tough.
Drain the beans and reserve their cooking liquid.
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Meanwhile start preparing the sauce.
To prepare the chilies cut them lengthwise, remove membranes and seeds with the tip of your knife, wash them under running water and finely slice them*.
In a medium-sized saucepan heat the olive oil over medium-high heat and add the onions. Sauté for 3-4 minutes until softened and add the garlic. Sauté for further 1 minute and add the tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, sliced chilies, pinch of sugar, salt and red pepper flakes (boukovo). Stir everything around the saucepan and pour 2/3 cup of fresh water. Stir again and let it come to the boil. Immediately turn the heat down to low and let sauce simmer for 20 minutes. Five minutes before the sauce is ready add the red bell peppers and stir. When sauce is ready remove from heat and set aside.
Transfer the cooked beans into a large ovenproof glass or ceramic baking dish (I used a 36cm x 25cm ceramic baking dish) and pour the sauce all over the beans. Stir everything around so that the beans get coated with the sauce and add 2 1/2 cups of the reserved bean cooking liquid into the baking dish. There should be enough liquid in the dish to cover the beans. Put baking dish carefully on the lower rack of the oven and bake for 45 minutes until beans are soft, almost falling apart on the inside and a bit crunchy and golden brown on the outside.
Remove from oven, sprinkle with some chopped parsley and serve.
*When handling chilies, especially the very hot ones, it is better to wear rubber gloves. Otherwise you need to wash your hands thoroughly after working with them and avoid contact with your eyes, nose or mouth.