Unlike many other pulses, most bean varieties were not native to the eastern Mediterranean, originating instead in Central and South America. Yet they have adapted well to the climate in Greece (and across the globe) and are now quite popular and an important source of protein here, where they are cooked in a variety of ways. In fact, the bean soup known as fasolada is considered our national dish – it’s humble, affordable and easy-to-cook yet still hearty and delicious.
Gigantes (“giants”) are particularly loved in Greece. These large white beans are also known as elephant beans, a nod to their size. Some of the best giant beans in Greece are grown in the country’s northwest, most famously in Prespes and Kastoria, both regions with a PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) for giant beans. They also produce dark colored giant beans, which almost taste like chestnuts and are considered ideal for people who suffer from diabetes.
Typically, giant beans are baked. The classic recipe includes onions, garlic, sliced carrots, tomato pulp, paste or juice, sometimes freshly chopped tomatoes or cherry tomatoes, and even sundried tomatoes can be added. The herbs most often used are parsley, dill and celery (Chinese celery), and many people also add chopped peppers; both sweet and spicy varieties go well with the dish. It’s also quite common to add sliced sausage, spinach or other seasonal greens that Greeks typically love, like chard and sorrel along with aromatic herbs. Those recipes that include greens often skip the tomato, and the beans are simply baked in olive oil and lemon.
What is most important for the success of this recipe is the quality of the beans. I buy them dry and soak them for 8-12 hours. Then the next day I gently boil them at low heat until they are tender enough to eat. The actual time they will need to boil really depends on the quality and freshness of the beans.
In this recipe I use chopped leek along with the carrots, as it adds a natural sweetness. It also features herbs that are very seasonal at the moment in Greece: chervil (also called French parsley), Mediterranean hartwort, and dill, which I source at my local farmers’ market on Saturdays and are particularly aromatic. If you can’t find them in your market, I’d recommend using the same amount in total of chopped parsley and dill. I avoid cooking the olive oil, instead adding most of it at the end to give the dish a nicer texture, shine and flavor.
Baked gigantes require fresh, country-style warm bread. If you’re a cheese-lover, try pairing this dish with feta or just crumble it and add it straight into the baking tray as soon as you take it out of the oven.
250 gr giant beans
3 tbsp olive oil + ½ cup
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 leek, chopped
2 carrots, diced
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp chopped celery (just the stalk)
½ cup rosé wine
320 gr fresh tomato grated or pulsed in a blender, or canned tomato pulp
2 tbsp tomato paste
½ tsp smoked paprika
½ cup water
½ cup chopped chevril
½ cup chopped dill
⅓ cup chopped Mediterranean hartwort
½ cup of water
1 ½ cup water from the beans (the water that the beans boiled in)
Freshly ground black pepper
Place beans in a large bowl and cover with plenty of fresh water. Soak overnight for 8-12 hours. On the following day, drain them, rinse them and place them in a large cooking pot. Cover again with plenty of fresh water, and bring to boil. Simmer for about 40-50 minutes or until beans are tender enough to eat. Once ready make sure you reserve the water that is left in there.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.
Place a large, deep skillet on medium-high heat. Add in 2-3 tablespoons olive oil and sauté the onions and leeks until soft and glossy. Add in the bay leaf, garlic and celery, stir and next add in the carrots. Season with salt and pepper to taste, stir for about a minute and then add in the wine and stir again. Add in the tomato pulp and paste, ½ tsp smoked paprika, ½ cup water and bring the heat down to low. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes until it cooks down and thickens. Remove from heat, adjust seasoning if necessary, and mix in the chopped herbs.
Place strained cooked giant beans in a baking tray, pour the sauce on top and mix in the water from the cooked beans. Cover and bake for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, uncover, toss them a bit to coat them with the sauce and place back in the oven uncovered for another 15 minutes or so until they get a nice color on top and look somewhat caramelized. Remove from the oven and mix in the ½ cup of olive oil. Let stand for 10-15 minutes and serve.
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