Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ingredient: GIGANTES

Gigante or gigande are type of large, flat white bean commonly used in Greek cooking. I’ve found that the closest thing that’s readily available in American super markets is the Lima or the Butterbean, but not to worry. I think that the taste, especially between Gigandes and Butterbeans, is extremely similar: as beans go they’re more sweet than nutty and more creamy than dry. In fact I think it’s fair to say that gigantes are essentially just very large white beans, which is great because it means you get twice as much as that flavor-absorbing middle section.

Beans in general are one of the best (if not the best) sources of nutritional bang for your buck. These low-fat, high-protein gems are packed with iron, B vitamins, and fiber. And while darker beans have higher levels of antioxidants, gigandes are still an extremely healthy addition to any meal. And they’re cheap. One pound of beans costs around one dollar. One dollar! Even my asshole overpriced supermarket in the West Village sells white beans for $1.40 a pound. With my budget, I should be eating beans and not much else.

In fact, I feel compelled to share that one summer my college roommate did just this. She honestly ate almost nothing but canned beans for an entire month. Like you, I was shocked at first, but in awe by the end. You see she had been granted a small monetary stipend to study in Paris for the summer, but she first had to live in New Haven, studying the French language. New Haven in the summer? Quel dommage!

My friend thought about her predicament and decided to make the most of it. Having heard of the culinary delights of Paris, she decided she wanted to save as much of that stipend as possible to spend on baguettes, croissants, and macarons. That girl wanted to drink wine like it was water, and let’s just say her dreams came true. All thanks to the beans. She ate a can of beans for dinner every night. It is true that she loves beans in any form, more than anyone I’ve known, but really, I couldn’t believe her determination. I would have caved after a day and continued to indulge in my eight dollar jars of jam. But she got to experience the Paris of her dreams, and the moral of the story is that if you have to live on one insanely cheap product for a month, beans are definitely the way to go.

But back to gigande beans. These are a really beany bean, with a creamy, mellow flavor that takes well to herbs, olive oil, and tomatoes. Plus if you're like me, you'll find anything oversized especially fun to eat. If they were easier to find, I’d eat gigande beans all the time. A gigande bean, celery, parsley and lemon salad would be a refreshing first course. In the cold weather, I’d love a bowl of gigande beans stewed with a little kale.

But my go-to recipe for gigandes is Greek, because, in my opinion, Greeks are masters at taking simple ingredients and elevating them to the level of the Gods. This recipe is one of the classic examples.

Gigande Beans Baked with Spinach and Feta

There are some dishes that you’ll find on almost any taverna menu in Greece; Spanikopita, fried cheese, and souvalkia being prime examples. This is another. I love this recipe because the flavors just taste like Greece; dill, parsley, tomatoes, spinach, feta. Honestly just writing tomatoes-spinach-feta makes my mouth start to water. Those three ingredients are so perfect together that sometimes I’ll just sauté them up and go at the results with a fork for a quick, delicious meal. This dish is a level above sautéed vegetables because it’s baked in a nice big casserole and has a salty, cheesy crust. And of course I’m partial to any dish that creates its own little broth that’s just begging to be mopped up by a piece of bread. I’d really eat this dish every week if I was asked to. Or every day if I was saving up money to go to France.

There’s just one problem. I hate soaking dried beans. I don’t know why. Oh, wait, yes I do. It’s part of that now-I-want-to-eat-it-now mentality that I have when it comes to cooking. As a baker I’m much more patient. I’ll let bread rise all day, but I can’t get myself to soak some damn beans. Part of the problem is that once you soak the beans for eight hours, they’ll also need to cook for at least another hour and old beans can take up to three. That’s not really how my dinners roll.

Dried beans were the roadblock to realizing my gigante dreams. But then the other day I was tooling around a shop in midtown called Kalustyan’s. Oh Kalustyan’s. How to describe you? Imagine a food shop that has every weird or hard-to-find product you could ever want, from passionfruit syrup to bags of forbidden rice to Amaranth. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that they also have canned gigante bans, but of course they do. Hooray!

I bought two cans of gigantes and immediately went home and made this dish. It was hearty and delicious. The onions and leeks are sautéed just enough so that they gain flavor but stay firm and don’t melt away in the finished casserole. The feta is mixed in with the beans and also sprinkled over the top with breadcrumbs to create a gooey, cheesy crust. The beans pick up the flavor of the dill and the tomatoes. By the end I was spooning it up onto hunks of crusty bread and shoveling it into my mouth.

In Greece this is often served as a mezze, or a small plate, but I think you’ll find this substantial dish to be a perfect main vegetarian course.

serves 8
2 15.5 ounce cans gigante or butter beans, drained and rinsed
2 9 ounce bags spinach, wilted
½ cup chopped fresh dill
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 leek, white and light green sections chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 onions, diced
1 ½ cups feta, crumbled, divided
2 cups peeled, seeded chopped tomatoes (I took the tomatoes, sans juice, from a 35 ounce can of whole Italian plum tomatoes)
1 cup freshly made breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Heat 2 tsp of olive oil over medium high heat. Sautee onions and leek until tender, 7 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix dill, parsley, one cup feta, salt, pepper, spinach, onions and leeks. Mix in beans.

Make sure the mixture is well combined then put in a heavy casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle top of casserole evenly with remaining ½ cup feta and breadcrumbs. Moisten with another 2 tbsp or so of olive oil.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown and beans are heated through.

1 comment:

  1. yay beans :) p.s. you should make this dish and fed-ex it to LA!