Gigantes Plaki: Greek Baked Beans
“Yeah, man. These are my Mom’s baked beans. They’re awesome because you can eat a whole bowl full without turning into a stink-ass and polluting your neighbors. Which is maybe not such a great thing after all….I f’ing hate my neighbors….”
That touching excerpt was from a man (I’d say ‘gentleman’, but who are we kidding?) that I used to work with. He was….a character. His Mom made him lunch every day and would call him at work to remind him to bring the tupperware back home. So she could wash it for him. He didn’t seem to mind. He was in his early thirties. Not to criticize, of course. I’m far too busy judging to criticize. However, to each their own.
He was right about one thing, though. His mom made the best gigantes. I mean, THE BEST. Despite my tacit loathing for the man-child, after one taste of mama’s Greek baked beans I decided that we needed to be friends. Good friends. The kind of friends that bring each other leftovers that their mom made.
These are not the molasses laden Texas baked beans that you might be thinking of, but they’re just as comforting. I love peasant food in all it’s many forms, and this is no exception. Gigantes Plaki is ridiculously cheap to make, as most meals centered around dried beans tend to be, but so full of flavor and balance that you’d never know this was food for the po’ folks who can’t afford meat (or are suffering through Lent one dish at a time). The creamy beans play off of the sweet carrots and acidic tomatoes and vinegar, all wrapped up with the grassy green swathe of dill. I’m telling you, peasants may be poor but they certainly aren’t stupid. I love dishes that make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (or a delicious crostini out of a shriveled bag of discount dry beans), and if I can do it all for less than $5, well, that’s just fine by me.
Gigantes Plaki: Greek Baked Beans
- 1 lb (450g) dried gigantes or lima beans *
- 2 lb (1 kg) tomato, or about 3-4 juicy ones
- 1 large or 2 medium carrots
- 4 fat celery stalks
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 yellow onion
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup + 1 tbsp good olive oil
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes
- 2.5 tbsp red wine vinegar **
- small bunch dill (about 1/3 cup chopped)
- medium bunch parsley (about 1/2 cup chopped)
- salt and pepper to taste
* Gigantes, also known as elephant beans, or giant beans, are a large flat fleshy legume native to Greece. You can usually buy gigantes at a Greek food store, but in a pinch feel free to use large dried lima beans.
** If you have a highly acidic vinegar you might want to cut back to 1.5 – 2 tbsp.
Put the beans in a large bowl and pour cold water over them to cover by at least 3-4 inches. Let them soak overnight for at least 12 hours.
Drain the soaked beans and discard the water. Put the beans in a large pot, cover them with at least 2 inches of water and add the bay leaves. Bring the beans to a simmer and let them cook away on the stove pot for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the beans are tender but not falling apart.
In the mean time, finely chop up the carrot, celery and onion into a small dice (between 1/8″ – 1/4″). There should be about 1.5 cups of carrot and celery and a cup of onions. Mince the garlic cloves while you’re at it.
In a very large heavy bottomed sauce pan or skillet heat up the quarter cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and sweat them out until the onion is semi-translucent, and then follow with the carrots and celery. Continue cooking until the carrots are tender and soft.
While that cooks, chop the tomatoes up into a relatively small (1/4″ – 1/3″) dice. When the carrots are soft add the tomatoes, tomato paste, red wine vinegar and hot red pepper flakes.
Put a lid on the pan and let it simmer, lifting the lid to stir it every once in a while, for about 30 minutes or until the tomatoes have broken down into a chunky red gravy.
Oh, and this is a good time to pre-heat your oven to 350ºF. I mustn’t forget that!
Discard the parsley and dill stems and finely chop the herbs.
Add the parsley and dill to the stewing tomatoes et al, and season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste.
Discard the bay leaves after the beans are cooked, and drain the beans but reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Pour the tomato stew over the beans and add the 1/2 cup of cooking liquid. The mixture should be somewhat thin and saucy, but not really….um….soupy.
Use the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to lightly grease the inside of a 9×13″ casserole dish. Pour the beans into the baking dish and smooth them out with the back of your spoon. Cover the pan with tin foil and tuck it into the center of your oven for 30 minutes.
Turn the heat up to 425ºF, uncover the dish and let the beans continue to cook for another 10 – 15 minutes, or until the center of the top is starting to look a little bit dry and the liquid has thickened up a bit.
You can garnish the beans with just a touch more chopped parsley or dill if you like, and they’re ready to be eaten with some nice crusty bread to sop up all those juices.
I actually like to gently toast some crostini and pile the beans on top to eat as a meze or light meal with salad, but that’s just me.
Traditionally Gigantes Plaki is served only slightly warm or at room temperature, but I’m far too greedy to wait until its cooled down. I happily scarf down enormous spoonfuls when its piping hot and fresh out of the oven….but room temperature is good too. And I ate some leftovers for lunch today, straight from the fridge. I wasn’t complaining.
I’m telling you, man. Rustic peasant food is where it’s at.