I first tried Gigantes Plaki, giant butter beans baked in sauce, for lunch after our civil wedding. Spyros and I had decided to get married in the town hall before our actual, religious wedding so that I could file for my Greek residency permit early (the process can be long, up to three years…) Here we are that day, squinting in the sun.
We said it wouldn’t count as our ‘real’ wedding, just a step towards it. Yet during the ceremony, when the mayor advised us to consider one another as equals and to work on strengthening our partnership every day, the day took on a significance neither of us had expected. My hand wobbled as I signed our marriage certificate and Spyros held my gaze a little longer when our eyes met. According to the law we were married.
Afterward, we had a celebratory lunch with just a few family members at a taverna near the town hall. We sat outside in the warm October sun and as I soaked in the my new in-laws and husband, I realized I wanted something simple for lunch; a tomato salad with parsley from the garden or grilled bread with olive oil. I wanted the most peasant-like dish on the menu and settled on Gigantes Plaki, a Greek dish of beans, tomatoes, carrots and celery.
The gigantes had probably been placed on the menu as an afterthought, a meal the cook had prepared for the staff’s family lunch—it’s cheap and filling—and hoped to sell to a few customers. When it arrived, I ate enthusiastic spoonfuls and let the tomato and olive-oil-infused beans dissolve in my mouth while I watched my new Greek family tease each other.
Gigantates Plaki has become one of my staple recipes. I like to make it when I need a meal I can reinvent a few times throughout the week. For dinner, I’ll serve it warm over rice or pasta. The next day I’ll eat it the same way for lunch, cold or slightly warm. A day or two later I’ll serve it for dinner again with crusty bread and a salad. With gigantes, there are many possibilities and the only real requirement is feta cheese.
If you’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll know that Greek cooked dishes take time to prepare and, I’ll be honest, this is one of them. The steps are easy but you’ll need to plan ahead, especially for soaking the beans. For this batch I realized that the simmering step pretty much resulted in canned beans. If you’d like to try subbing a few cans of chickpeas, cannellini, broad beans or—if they exist—gigantes, I think that would work. You’d just skip the first step and cook the veggies (making sure to cut them very finely) in the sauce. Then you’d drain and rinse the beans, stir them into the sauce and bake. If you try it, let me know if/ how it worked.
Every time I eat gigantes I think of our civil wedding day; how happy I was, how handsome Spyros looked in his suit, the gigantes. It’s funny how certain dishes become tied to special memories. What about you? Are there any dishes that have become markers of special occasions in your life?
500 grams (17.5 oz.) dried gigantes or broad beans
4 celery ribs, sliced
4 carrots, sliced
a few black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
1 cup onion, finely chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, finely sliced
1 cup oil
1 teaspoon sugar
Salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper to taste
½ cup finely chopped parsley
2 400g (14 oz.) cans peeled whole tomatoes, blitzed in the food processor
2 large fresh tomatoes, sliced in rounds
dried oregano and olive oil, for seasoning
1. Soak the beans in a large bowl of water overnight or for 12 hours. Strain and place in a pot with plenty of water and add the celery, carrot, bay leaf and the peppercorns. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and simmer slightly covered until the beans are soft, about 1-1 ½ hours. Strain and place the beans and the vegetables in a large glass baking dish.
2.While the beans are boiling, prepare the sauce. Over medium heat, lightly cook the onions in the olive oil until they have softened. Stir in the garlic and cook for one minute. Add the blitzed tomatoes, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper and sugar and simmer for a few minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the chopped parsley.
3. Pour the sauce over the cooked gigantes and stir to combine. Arrange the sliced tomatoes over the beans in an overlapping pattern. Sprinkle them lightly with salt, pepper, and a little dried oregano. Drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake in a preheated 175oC (350oF) oven for about 1 hour. Serve warm or at room temperature and, if desired, with feta cheese.