Greek Inspired Gigandes (Lima Beans)

This photo pretty much sums up why I love Greek cuisine. This is a typical meal I had on the island of Lesvos (close to Turkey), at a family-owned taverna that is completely off the beaten path -- down a tiny dirt road lined with overgrown foliage and a couple hundred meters from a deserted beach (took a while to find this place, but totally worth it; in fact, we went back several times for the identical meal). The food is prepared simply, with the freshest ingredients -- Greek salad with local tomatoes, peppers, purslane, and feta; lakerda (marinated local tuna); a giant plate of beans (gigandes) with local olive oil, homemade bread, and, of course, a carafe of the local white wine. Many taverna owners grow their own vegetables in addition to producing their own olive oil and wine. Do you sense a theme here: local, local, local. Commitment to local ingredients is what elevates certain tavernas above others, and why so much of the food that you encounter in the Greeks Islands leaves a lasting impression that lures you back for more.

Also, made some new friends...

Mezés or mezedhes, small dishes served at lunch, dinner, or as a late-night snack, are a Greek staple. Typically, you order a few, as they are meant to be shared, celebrating the simple, delicious food and wine with friends and family. Mezedhes can be served hot, warm, or even at room temperature. The longer some dishes sit, the better they taste, as the flavors meld and intensify with time.

The dish I prepared today was, not surprisingly, inspired by my travels through Greece. This "Greek inspired" dish -- gigandes or gigantes or yigandes -- is made with giant lima beans, which are baked in the oven with peppers, onions, and tomatoes for a few hours until all the liquid is absorbed and the top layer gets a bit charred and caramelized. As the tomatoes, peppers, and onions cook down, they create a thick, savory sauce for the tender beans.

This dish pairs well with a big Greek salad (aka horiatiki salata), when tomatoes are back in season, and some grilled octopus (can never get enough of that). And, if you were in certain parts of Greece, Crete in particular, you would end your meal with a complimentary shot of raki (aka fire water); a local spirit, typically homemade by individual families. It is a sign of hospitality (or cruel and unusual punishment, depending on your affinity for raki) in Greece to offer your guest raki and fresh fruit at the end of a meal. Yamas (cheers)!

1 pound dried giant lima beans
Assortment of peppers (used two cubanelle, one anaheim, one banana, two fresno, and two red bell), thinly sliced
1/2 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes (preferably San Marzano)
1/4 cup chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
1 cup water
5 ounces baby spinach
Feta cheese for topping (optional)

First, you must soak the lima beans overnight in cold water.

The following day...

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Bring the beans to a boil, and simmer for about 30 minutes until they begin to soften.

Saute the onions in a large skillet with ~3 tablespoons of olive oil, until translucent. In a large bowl mix the peppers, garlic, tomatoes, dill, spinach, the remaining 5 tablespoons of olive oil, and spices, along with the beans, and onions. Transfer to a large casserole pan.

Cover with foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake for another 45 to 50 minutes minutes, until most of the water has been absorbed. Then, turn up the heat to broil for 15 to 20 minutes, so that the top layer gets a bit charred and caramelized.

Serve hot or at room temperature, with a sprig or two of dill, some feta (optional), a drizzle of olive oil, and some course sea salt.

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