Years ago when I was just 13 and visiting family in Canada I was introduced to Greek cuisine and became obsessed. In my late teens my mom gave me a basic Greek cookbook and over the years since I have made every recipe in it and collected several more wonderful cookbooks that are getting well used. One of my favorite recipes I make again and again is gigandes plaki, or baked giant white beans.
Gigandes are not restricted to the categorization of a winter dish but when it’s cold out there is nothing I find more comforting than a hot bowl of these giant, creamy and tender beans baked in a savory tomato and aromatic sauce with chunks of feta cheese. For those who can, a fried egg on top of the beans transforms the bowl of beans into a perfect breakfast or a homey dinner. I like to eat them one bean at a time, popping it against the roof of my mouth and letting the creaminess mix with the savory tomato and onion and garlic. Each bean is a complete sensory experience, luxurious and yet rustic and healthy.
In the summer I have made gigandes plaki and served them at room temperature with fried chicken or one large overstuffed sandwich that serves 8. This is truly a fantastic dish for any season, but since it is winter, please do find a bag of dried giant white beans (or giant lima beans, as I have seen them labeled lately) and make a batch now. With no embarrassment I confess I have made them four times so far this winter (but one batch doesn’t count because I fell asleep and burnt them in the oven, my bad cooking mojo continues to haunt me.)
There is no guilt with these baked beans, the beans themselves have a great deal of fiber and this is a low fat preparation. If you are vegan you can omit the cheese easily, many versions of gigandes do not contain feta but I really like the browned outside of the baked feta with the creamy interior that emulates the creaminess of the beans themselves with the addition of the salty tang of sheep’s milk.
A note about the beans, if you read “lima beans” and think, ew, please consider that this method of cooking the beans renders them creamy and soft inside with the texture of white beans or cannelini beans. Somehow they don’t have that grainy texture that many lima beans seem to have. I don’t know why, I think it is Greek magic.
Gigandes Plaki – Baked Giant White Beans
1# dried giant white beans, sometimes labelled as giant lima beans, soaked overnight in lots of water with 3 T of salt
3 T olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, very thinly sliced
2 large tomatoes, diced
2T parsley, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried Greek oregano
1 c tomato sauce, or 1 T tomato paste dissolved in 1 c H2O
extra water if desired
6 oz feta cheese, cut into large chunks (I have also made this with goat cheese)
salt and pepper
The night before you make these, or the morning before, soak the beans in a huge quantity of water with the salt added, for overnight, or a minimum of 8 hours.
Drain the soaked beans and throw away any loose skins from the beans. Do not be alarmed if they look wrinkled, split or otherwise strange. Place the beans in a large saucepan, cover with cold water by several inches and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a slow simmer. Cook the beans at a simmer for 40 minutes, skimming the foam or scum that rises to the top of the water. When most of water is absorbed and the beans are tender with no resistance, remove from the heat, drain a little and let cool.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350. Heat the olive oil in a skillet, sauté onions and garlic with a good pinch of salt for 10 minutes, stirring frequently, over medium heat. Then add the carrots and tomatoes and sauté for another 10 minutes.
Add the cooked beans, put in large shallow dish, add everything else, except the cheese, and taste for enough salt and pepper. The sauce should be slightly soupy but the beans should not be swimming. Gently fold in the cheese, and bake 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until beans are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed. Beans should be slightly burnt on top.
It is highly recommended to make them ahead of time because the flavor of the sauce permeates the beans over time. I prefer them on Day 3 after cooking. Sometimes I add a 1/3 cup of water to the dish before putting into the fridge as the beans will continue to absorb liquid.
I have just finished my last batch and think I will wait a week or so before cooking more. Maybe I will wait, that is…