This January, I’ve been atoning for all the sweets I posted in December. Not that I’ve done anything quite as drastic as giving up dessert in real life, but I thought a few healthy savories would break up the monotony of endless cakes and baklawa. I mean, I am about to gear up for Valentine’s Day, and will for sure be sharing yet another baklawa recipe soon, but in the meantime, let’s talk about beans.
Or, more specifically, let’s talk about baked butter beans! (Also known as gigandes/gigantes plaki in Greek and fasolia/fasouliyeh in Arabic and Assyrian. Oddly, they contain no butter whatsoever). This baked bean dish spans the eastern and western Mediterranean, and I have my own particular way of making it, which involves taking one or two liberties.
If you’re always in a hurry, don’t fret—I use canned butter beans instead of soaking and par-cooking dried ones. They don’t continue to soften once they bake with the tomato sauce, and so I’ve always had good luck using canned. Just make sure you look for a brand that doesn’t overcook them to begin with (you know how some brands are just absolute mush, and perfect for things like hummus? Avoid those!).
If you can’t find canned butter beans, this recipe is also a wonderful way to cook cannellinis. If you’re starting from dried beans, it’s very important to soak them in lightly salted water overnight, and then cook them all the way through (stopping before they get mushy) before adding them to the tomatoes. Even though they bake for twenty-five more minutes, there is not enough moisture in the dish to cook them the rest of the way if they start out too al dente.
Feta isn’t a necessary ingredient for delicious baked butter beans, but it’s one of my favorite things to add. Instead of crumbling and sprinkling the feta, I like to cut it into big chunks and nestle them in with the beans, and then sprinkle a little on top. The process feels a bit like planting seeds or tulip bulbs. You just push the feta down, and then nudge the beans back over the tops. In the oven, the feta softens and melts a little with the tomato, turning into delightfully spreadable pockets of cheese.
This dish is wonderful served on thin slices of rye toast, but it’s also lovely served simply with basmati rice. Feel free to adjust the flavorings and seasonings to your preference. It’s easy to veganize it by leaving out the feta, but I suspect it would also be delicious with some tofu cubes nested in with the beans (although I haven’t yet tried it this way myself).
baked butter beans with nestled feta
serves 6 as a main, or more as a side
active time: 20 minutes
total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
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3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion (150-175g), chopped
2 cloves garlic (8g), crushed through a press
2 carrots (140g), medium diced
1 teaspoon (1g) dried oregano
2 teaspoons (2g) dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon (0.5g) crushed red pepper (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon (1g) black pepper
2 14-ounce cans (2 400g cans) diced tomato
1 teaspoon (3g) sugar
3 14-ounce cans (3 400g cans) of butter beans, strained and rinsed
1/4 cup (12g) minced fresh dill fronds *
3/4 cup (40g) minced fresh parsley leaves (reserve some for garnish)
200 grams feta, cut into about 10 large cubes
Heat a large oven-proof 10 to 12” steep-sided skillet over medium heat for a few minutes, then add the olive oil, followed by the onion, garlic, carrots, and about 1/4 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring occasionally for 10 to 15 minutes, until the onions and carrots soften quite a bit (reduce to low if they start to caramelize).
Add the oregano, thyme, crushed red pepper, black pepper, diced tomatoes, and sugar, and bring up to a simmer. Once simmering, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20-25 minutes, just until it forms a very thick sauce.
Preheat the oven to 425° F (218° C) convection while the sauce is simmering.
Taste the sauce once it’s done. Adjust the seasoning, stir in the butter beans, and remove from heat. Add most of the dill and parsley (reserve a couple pinches for garnish). Distribute all but 1 of the feta cubes evenly over the surface of the beans. Gently push down the feta cubes so that they nestle among the beans. Gently nudge some of the beans back over feta cubes to make sure they’re not showing (it’s like planting tulip bulbs). Crumble the remaining feta on top, and bake for about 25 minutes, just until the exposed feta browns, and the whole thing is heated through. Garnish with the reserved parsley, and serve.
* Feel free to use a much smaller amount of dried dill (but make sure to use fresh parsley).
To make ahead: 1 or 2 days ahead of time, make the sauce, wash and mince the herbs (dry them very well first), and cut the feta into cubes. You can even strain and rinse the beans and leave them in the fridge, if you'd like to. Once you're ready to bake, heat the sauce back up in the pan you're going to bake it in (you might need to add 1-2 tablespoons of water). Once it's warmed through, add the butter beans, dill, and parsley, stir together, and nestle in the feta cubes. Bake and garnish as usual.