It’s All Greek to Me
August 13, 2017
It feels like forever since I last posted, but I’m glad to be back and bringing a little taste of Greece with me. Last week’s Artists’ Market was a great experience and the people at Williams-Sonoma could not have been nicer to work with. I love events like the Artists’ Market; they allow artists and small business owners to really have a chance to connect with others and, of course, show off their talents. They’re an excellent place to get inspiration for future projects as well… with so many exciting gadgets and designs just begging for a supportive role in a recipe (and a photograph), how can you not be inspired? Needless to say, I’ll definitely be looking forward to participating in the upcoming Artists’ Market scheduled for the beginning of October; if you haven’t visited an art market near you, you should.
Back to the cooking… I’ve been in the mood for something a little Mediterranean lately, and especially for something a little out of the ordinary. Which is why I decided to check out the simple yet delicious cuisine of the mountainous portion of northern Greece. Most people are familiar with the rows of starchy pastitsio (pas-teet-sio), sprinkled with hints of cinnamon within the layers of meat, warm, rice-stuffed dolmades (dole-ma-days), and honey-soaked sweets generally found at Greek food festivals; what they’re less familiar with are the delicious, lipstick-red Florina peppers, native to the town of the same name, stuffed with feta, honey-drenched loukoumades (luke-ooh-ma-days) – balls of fried dough, soaked in syrup or honey and known in Arabic as luqmat al-qadi, Sicily as struffoli, and India and Pakistan as gulab jamun – and, of course, tavče gravče (tav-chuh grav-chuh), or Macedonian-style baked beans.
I’m pretty sure I say every dish I make while writing this blog is a “one-pot wonder,” but believe me when I say tavče gravče is – two, if you count the dish you’ll need to bake the ingredients in before serving. And it is good. In the interest of full disclosure, while I definitely included them with the final meal, I didn’t make the dolmades (grape leaves) by hand (thanks Aegean Grape Leaves!)… but I did arrange them, the olives, the Florina peppers, and the feta into a fantastic mezze platter.
Every culture has that one dish or culinary tradition that they imbue with special significance, whether to bring good luck, protect against negative influences, or maybe even just make the food cook better. My mom has often told me about my great-grandmother, who was Sicilian and full of these (and other) traditions – every time she made bread, she’d put a small mark in the center, in order to make sure that the bread would rise perfectly; whether it was her skills in the kitchen or other forces at play, whatever she did, worked. Similarly, my mom, like her mother, always makes sure that New Year’s Eve doesn’t pass without making a pound cake from scratch, with chocolate icing on top – the icing is the key to the good luck for the next year. The traditions associated with tavče gravče are rooted in the custom of serving meatless dishes at specific times of the year held by Orthodox Christians in Greece and Macedonia and stretch back over centuries; far from merely being an artifact of long-standing religious beliefs, however, tavče gravče is a unique mixture of observant practices, passed down from generation to generation, and cultural perspectives which establish that the path to good fortune can be found by eating bean dishes prepared especially for special celebrations, such as the arrival of the new year.
Traditionally, tavče gravče is made using dried Great Northern beans and takes a little longer to prepare; however, for the sake of available materials, I used the canned variety and adapted the kind of peppers I used, for a twist on the original (original recipe borrowed from here). It’s interesting to me how many different cultures have bean dishes, and how diverse the resulting product often is, especially in terms of density and flavour; Great Northern beans (or, at least, the canned variety) are incredibly starchy and dense… but the final dish is super light – you’ll hardly believe the difference. To make tavče gravče, you’ll need the following:
- 2 (15.5 oz.) cans Great Northern beans
- 3 tbsp. Canola oil
- 1 large onion, quartered
- 2 dried, whole Guajillo chile peppers
- 1 tbsp. salt
- 1 onion, sliced into 1/8 in. rounds (you can probably get away with using 1/2 onion, depending on how much onion you like in your dishes)
- 1/2 tsp. salt (to taste)
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper (to taste)
- 1/2 cup Canola oil
- 2 tbsp. paprika
- Preheat oven to 400ºF.
- Add the beans, 3 tbsp. of Canola oil, water (add enough water to cover the beans with about 2 inches of water above the beans), chile peppers, and quartered onions to a medium-large pot.
- Cook over medium-high heat until just bubbling, stirring intermittently (about 15-20 min.).
- While ingredients in pot are cooking, prepare the roux; add canola oil and paprika to a small saucepan, stirring intermittently, until ingredients are combined and start to become fragrant.
- Add roux to pot with beans and other ingredients; stir to combine.
- Add in 1 tbsp. salt; stir to combine.
- Bring ingredients to a boil and let boil 3-5 minutes, then remove from heat.
- Carefully remove beans and onions from pot using a ladle or large spoon and add to dutch oven or skillet. Set chile peppers aside; peppers will be hot, so use caution when handling.
- Pour just enough of the liquid from the pot over the beans and onions in the skillet to cover them; discard remaining liquid.
- Add 1/2 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. pepper to ingredients and lightly stir to combine.
- Arrange chile peppers and onion rounds on top of the liquid.
- Place skillet/dutch oven inside oven and let bake 30-45 minutes, or until a slightly crusty layer begins to form over the beans.
- Remove from oven and let cool.
Fun fact: Florina is known as the town “where Greece begins.” Its name comes from the Greek word, chlōrós, meaning “fresh” or “green.” While famous for its gorgeous views of the Mediterranean, nearly 80% of Greece is mountainous. Macedonia gets its name from the ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedonia; the Greek word, makednós, means “tapered” or “tall,” and may refer to the immense mountains that surround the region.