A Gigante Bowl of Comfort
If you know not the creamy comfort that is biting into an enormous and aptly-named gigante bean, then it is my mission today to convince you to seek out this elusive packet of leguminous deliciousness.
I’ve gone on about my love for beans–and their nutritional virtues–in the past. And while many folks profess to like beans well enough, too, they fail to see what inspires my unbridled passion for these little packets of complex-carbohydrate goodness. After all, the American bean vocabulary tends to be pretty limited: we know garbanzos, kidneys, black beans and cannelinis. Occasionally we dabble in pintos or black-eyed peas. But unless it comes in a can, most of us can’t be bothered to expand our bean horizons.
If ever there was a bean to inspire a nation to abandon its lazybean tendencies, however, surely the Gigante (aka: Gigande, Yigante, Hija) must be it. Most popular in Greek cuisine (yes, the same clever people who brought us geometry and democracy have also retained this most delicious of beans in their collective leguminous repertoire), gigante beans boast a divine creamy texture and the ability to maintain their shape after all sorts of cooking. I decided it was time to start making my own gigantes after the $9.99/lb Antipasto bar at Whole Foods lured me in one time too many with that ridiculously delicious Gigante Bean salad of theirs. (What kind of person spends $18.98 on an impulse bean purchase?!) Like all bean varieties, Gigantes are an excellent source of complex carbohydrate, protein, fiber, antioxidants and a good source of iron.
My new favorite place to buy beans is Purcell Mountain Farms, an Idaho-based farm with an excellent online store. In addition to having the most reasonable prices for my favorite hard-to-find Gigante beans and Beluga lentils, they offer a surprising variety of organic and heirloom bean varieties with romantic names and fashionable appearances. If you’re bored to tears with your kidneys and pintos, surely an Eye of the Goat, Jackson Wonder or Mortgage Lifter bean will liven up your winter soups–and spirits–mighty fast. And if you’ve eschewed standard beans for their dull, lackluster appearances, might I suggest the speckled Dapple Grey variety, or perhaps a melange of Orca, Jacob’s Cattle and Painted Pony beans to match the animal-print napkins at your next dinner party? There are so many gorgeous, interesting, delicious historic bean varieties to try if you’re willing to venture beyond the supermarket aisles. And by buying heirloom bean varieties, you’re doing your small part to support environmentally-sound practices that promote biodiversity. Forget blue ketchups and animal-shaped nuggets to entice your finnicky kids to eat; let them pick out their own mix of fashion-colored and patterned beans and see if that doesn’t get them engaged in the healthy eating process.
If you are a bean buff and are interested in learning more about the folklore behind the wide, wonderful world of beans–as well as how to prepare them–I strongly recommend Aliza Green’s essential cookbook, Beans, from which I learned, for example, that Gigante beans are a variety of so-called “runner beans” that were brought to America from Greece and Spain.
Cooking beans from scratch
While I resisted it for years, I have come to discover that cooking beans from dry isn’t nearly as annoying as I had thought it would be. If you have the foresight to plan ahead, tomorrow night’s dinner beans into a big bowl of water in a ratio of about 3 cups water per 1 cup beans before you go to bed is the easiest way to prep your beans for a faster cooking time the next day. And if you’re as Type A as I am, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with multi-tasking overnight will lull you into a happy, albeit geeky, slumber. This would be the regular soaking method.
The quick-soaking method takes about an hour to an hour and a half. In this case, you’d put your beans in a large saucepan so that they’re covered with 2 inches of water. Bring the water to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes. Then, turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let your beans soak in the water for 60-90 minutes, until tender. Drain the water and proceed with your recipe.
The #1 rule when cooking any dry bean is to avoid adding acid of any kind with the bean until it is already tender. Don’t add any vinegar, wine, citrus juice, tomato product or anything else acidic to the cooking water until your beans are nice and soft; otherwise, the acid will prevent your beans from softening no matter how long you cook them.
Gigante Beans: Two Ways
I am obsessed with this first recipe for Greek-style Baked Gigante Beans, (aka Yigandes Plaki) which was adapted from Nancy Harmon Jenkins’ The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook and posted on another food blog. (Better they should have to deal with the copyright issues than me!) While I’ll admit that it took forever and a half to make, don’t forget that I live in a freezing house and am all for any recipe that involves keeping the oven on for long periods of time. (If you pre-soak your beans overnight, the first 40-50 minute bean simmering step can be cut in half.) It strikes me that this recipe would be perfectly suited for a slow-cooker, but since I have yet to figure out how to use the slow-cooker I got for my wedding, I will defer to any ambitious crock-pot enthusiasts out there to adapt this recipe on our behalf and post their findings in the comments section.) Since I didn’t have fresh herbs, I used a bunch of dry ones (including basil and oregano), which resulted in a final product that, in addition to being mouth-meltingly creamy, gave a similar flavor effect to lasagna…in the best possible way. In fact, I would recommend serving it like you would lasagna; accompanied by a nice garlicky side dish of broccoli rabe or sauteed bitter greens to counteract the sweetness and bring some green to the plate. It is absolutely delicious. If your children don’t like this recipe, then send them back for a refund.
Another easy way to serve gigantes is as a room temperature bean salad appetizer. Gigantes are commonly featured among the mezze in Greece, and a salad is a perfect way to pay homage to this civilized bean. Mark Bittman offers an easy-to-follow formula for a Greek-style gigante bean salad in his modern kitchen staple, How to Cook Everything Vegetarian.
Of course, to replicate the Whole Foods Antipasto version that I’m so addicted to, here’s the closest recipe approximation I could come up with, reconstructed from the posted ingredient list on their salad bar signage:
Recipe: Tamara’s Whole Foods Gigante Bean Salad Knockoff
- Cook 1/2 lb of gigante beans per the cooking instructions above
- Roast 1 small red pepper and 1 small green pepper over open flame (your gas burner will do just fine). Peel their skins off and slice peppers into super-thin strips.
- Mix cooked beans with 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar, 2 TBSP olive oil, 1 TBSP fresh chopped parsley, 1/2 cup (or more, to taste) or roasted pepper strips, 1-2 minced garlic cloves and salt to taste.
- Let salad marinate in fridge for several hours so flavors can blend.
- Serve at room temperature.