A few years ago, a friend visiting us in Athens asked what my favorite Greek food was. The beans, I said. Definitely the beans. He looked confused and I suppose my answer was a bit strange since beans aren’t a food people typically associate with Greece. Yet, with over 180 days of religious fast (which forbids meat, fish and dairy) each year, beans are an important protein source in the traditional Greek diet.
Most Greeks no longer practice all of the religious fasts, but the fasting diet still influences day-to-day cuisine in Greece and this—happily for me—has resulted in some very tasty, family-style bean recipes. Greek cooks take their time when cooking legumes; soaking them for up to 24 hours and baking them in a low, slow oven until they are soft but not mushy. The seasonings are few, usually just onions, garlic and/or tomatoes with a good pinch of salt and glugs of olive oil. It’s simple cooking but one that always inspires me.
Most inspiring is Revithia sto Fourno or Baked Chickpeas. I first tried it at a taverna one winter evening, the year Spyros and I moved back to Greece. The taverna, Spyros said, was famous for its chickpeas so I looked forward to trying them. We placed our order and within minutes, the waiter returned with a large, shallow bowl of golden chickpeas floating in a browned onion and olive oil broth. They were soft and melting, like eating a bowl of the sweetest, tiniest potatoes. I imitated Spyros, pulling apart chunks of sourdough bread and using them sop up the onion broth.
The night was cold, but I remember feeling warm after that dinner. I knew I wanted to try recreating those chickpeas in my own kitchen, one day. The ingredients—just chickpeas, onions and olive oil—made it seem like such an easy recipe.
And it is an easy recipe. You just need to make like a Greek cook and plan ahead. Since dried bean cooking times can be unpredictable, it’s best to soak them for at least 24 hours. Some beans cook in 1 hour while others are still crunchy after three; pre-soaking helps hydrate them. My in-laws say that older, poorer quality beans take the longest to cook. This sounds reasonable, so I try to buy the freshest, best-looking beans I can.
During our first winter in the new house, I must have cooked beans once a week and made baked chickpeas at least seven times. I’d like to think that, by now, I’ve got it down but even this batch took longer than I expected. Bean cooking, I’ve learned, is a touch-and-go process. You taste, stir, and cover. You do it again until they’re done. I made baked chickpeas last Sunday for family and our house smelled of browned onions and, strangely, toast. We ate it over steamed rice, the grains absorbing the spicy, decadent oil. Those. Beans.
Baked Chickpeas (Revithia sto Fourno)
Adapted from Aglaia Kremezi’s The Food of Greece
*If you’d like to double this recipe (which I frequently do) you needn’t increase the olive oil since it rises to the top and prevents the top beans from over browning.
1 pound (500 grams) dried chickpeas, soaked 24 hours in water
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 cup olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
1 ½ teaspoons red chili flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
Drain the soaked chickpeas and place in a large pot with 1 tablespoon of the dried oregano. Cover with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Once they reach a boil, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for 1 hour, skimming any foam. Drain but reserve the cooking liquid. Preheat the oven to 300oF (150oC).
Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a frying-pan over medium heat. Cook the onions and red pepper flakes with a pinch of salt until soft, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the garlic and remaining oregano. Set aside.
Transfer the chickpeas to an oven-proof baking dish with a cover. Stir in the onion mixture and add about two cups of the reserved liquid, mix well and season with salt. Cover and bake for 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally, until the chickpeas are tender. Remove the lid and bake uncovered for another 15-30 minutes to reduce the liquid slightly. Serve over rice or pasta.