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A Gigante Bowl of Comfort

Submitted by on January 21, 2010 – 8:54 pm10 Comments

Gigante beans: Some foods are OK to supersize

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.

Buying Beans

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

Greek baked beans

Yigandes Plaki: Loosely translates to "Why, oh why, was I not born to a Greek grandmother?"

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.
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  • Georgia says:

    Long live the Greeks! Opa!

  • caffettiera says:

    Thanks for the interesting post and the links to amazing bean varieties. I always cook beans from dried, or even better, fresh, straight from the pod (even if I have found fresh beans, ‘borlotti’ variety, only in Italy, not sure if they sell them elsewhere). I find myself perfectly in the feeling of going to bed happy, because you managed to multitask yet another food preparation :D.

    I am very interested about your note on avoiding contact with acid substances: I have read in some cookbooks to avoid adding salt to cooking beans, least they become tough. Actually the traditional way to cook them in my house is with a tomato in the boiling water. Is it acid in any way? Or does it just leave umami, as some seaweed does? Also some vegetarian cookbooks recommend using wakame for cooking beans.

  • Tamara says:

    Oh, the controversy! So, the salt thing appears to ve polarizing. Some sources warn you to stay away from adding it to the cooking water for the same reason as acid–because it will harden the bean. Other sources claim that this is a huge myth and that salting the water actually flavors the beans, has no effect on toughness, and is preferable. Honestly, I don’t know who is right. The best I can come up with is: if you live somewhere that doesn’t have hard water, a little salt in the cooking water probably won’t hurt. But when a timely dinner is at stake, I tend to play it safe and avoid salting the water just in case.

    The acid thing is more interesting to me. A tomato in the cooking water, you say?? Fascinating! Tomato is absolutely acid… does your family do this will all bean varieties, or just certain ones? After a long soak or not? All I know is that the one time I tried to make a chili in my slow cooker and I tossed in dry (unsoaked) lima beans along with some canned tomatoes, the lima beans never softened. Ever. Even after, like, 8 hours. So I learned my lesson and keep the beans away from acid until they’ve been properly tenderized.

    (PS: your blog’s photography is beautiful!)

  • Caffettiera says:

    My mother always adds a fresh tomato or two to borlotti beans, who actually don’t have a tough skin. She always soaks beans, even though my grandmother often uses something like your quick soaking trick, and the tomato as well. I am quite positive that you can cook fresh beans in tomato sauce because I remember it as a typical summer dish. I don’t use fresh tomatoes that much because the ones available here won’t actually lend any flavour, sadly. So, who knows? Maybe you have to rehydrate the beans before letting them touch the acid…

  • Solange Rebecca Echeverria says:

    Italian Corona Beans work just as well-as a matter of fact, hard to tell the difference! Available ironically @ Whole Foods!

  • Tamara says:

    Thanks for the great idea! I happened upon a bag of corona beans today so I bought them and will try them tonight!

  • Deanna says:

    Thanks so much! I also just discovered the Whole Foods Gigante Bean Salad. It’s so good that I had to google around about them. Can’t wait to get beans from Purcell Mountain Farms, another great tip!

  • Sharon says:

    I love you. I found what must be the same salad on the antipasto bar at our local Fred Meyer, and was sure I could never find the beans or replicate that heavenly salad….but your description nails it right on the head! Thank you so much!!

  • JO says:

    I am anxious to try this recipe as I, too, am nuts about the Whole Food Gigante Bean Salad. I see lots of information about presoaking
    g and what not to add to the pot, but do not see how long to cook the beans in your recipe. Maybe I am missing something…. I have done the long soak overnight and am ready to cook…how long?

  • Tamara says:

    Sorry it wasn’t clear! If you’ve soaked overnight, your beans may need only about an hour to cook, but obviously you’ll want to check for softness the first time around with this recipe until you perfect your technique!