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Gigantes – Baked Giant Butter Beans/Γίγαντες Πλακί

My mother always had a large white ceramic baking dish on hand at anytime of the day or night containing Gigantes.  When they were good I loved them.  Creamy soft butter beans coated in a garlicky tomato sauce with a kick of herbs. The trouble was, my mother would never quite repeat the recipe the same way twice and so they were not always good. Battles would follow if the recipe veered too far and I would be quite determined in rejecting the week’s offering if they didn’t quite taste as I liked them.  Other members of the family would eat them whatever was done to the recipe. I am still of the impression that they had no taste buds.

This is a simple dish and everyone likes it their way.  It’s basically a dish of baked beans. The beans in question being butter beans, soaked overnight and cooked in the oven with tomatoes, olive oil, celery, onion and their crowing glory; garlic, dill and parsley.

The sticking point in my mother’s Gigantes was that some weeks the ratio of garlic to beans was completely off the scale –  handy if there were any vampires in the area, or if the  dill had been overplayed.  Some weeks the butter beans themselves were a little al dente and other weeks the Gigantes were just perfect. On the perfect days they would be eaten with bread and a generous slice of feta.

Like a lot of recipes I post you can alter and add to this recipe depending what you have in your fridge or cupboard or just to make it your own with the balance of garlic and herbs.  Carrots are put into the dish by lots of cooks but I prefer it without.  Some omit the dill, where I feel it is what makes the dish.  The only thing I will say is that the beans do need to be soaked overnight and cooked until very tender. This can take anything from 45mins to 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Even if the flavours are right, there is nothing worse than biting into an al dente bean.  Trust me, I have had plenty of those over the years!

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Gigantes Plaki

Ingredients

500g gigantes /butter beans

olive oil for frying and serving at the end

1 large onion chopped finely

1 stick celery chopped finely

2 large cloves of garlic minced/crushed

400g tin of tomatoes

1 tsp sugar

2 tbs tomato purée

flat leaf parsley roughly chopped (1-2 tablespoons or more)

dill roughly chopped (1-2 tablespoons)

salt and pepper

Method

Soak the beans in water overnight.

Rinse the beans and place the beans in a pan and bring to a gentle boil, turn them down and simmer for anything between 50-100mins.  The beans are cooked when then are soft. Take one out and squeeze between your fingers.

Drain, rinse and set aside.

In a frying pan, add some olive oil and fry the chopped onion and celery.  Cook until the onion is starting to become translucent, add the garlic and cook for a few minutes more. Then add the tomatoes, adding half a tin of water to the pan along with the tomato purée. Add the teaspoon of sugar.  Season and stir.  Leave to simmer for 20 mins. Checking from time to time, if the mixture becomes dry add a little water.

Into an oven proof dish add the beans and the onion, celery, tomato and garlic. At this point also add the chopped parsley and dill.  Mix well and place in an oven at 180C for 40-45 minutes.

Serve with adding some olive oil over the top and a slice of feta.

Sausages also go very well with this dish.

These can be eaten hot, lukewarm or even cold.

Note:  I buy the Greek  3alpha Gigantes white beans (butter beans) from The Athenian Grocery in Moscow road, London W2 4BT, they also do a mail order service.  I am not connected with them in any way except I have been going to their shop since a small child.

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Papoutsakia -Little Shoes

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Papoutsakia in Greek means little shoes – the name alone endears me to this recipe but I also know that they are particularly tasty too. Little shoes are aubergines sliced in half and filled with minced meat that has been cooked in wine, herbs, cinnamon and tomatoes, then covered with a rich velvety cheesy bechamel sauce. These are then baked in the oven until golden brown.

Aubergines are plentiful in Greece.  A traditional home cooked dish baked in vast numbers and packed into large baking trays enough to feed an army.  It doesn’t matter that not everyone is sitting down to eat at the same time as they can be eaten hot, warm or cold (preferably with a salad and a hunk of bread).

Everytime I smell the aromatic waft that is released from the oven I am transported back to Greece. They are a true taste of home.  Even without the sun ripened aubergines and mediterrean tomatoes that are sometimes hard to find in England, this dish can still be made over here and taste just as good.  The secret is in the slow cooking of the meat, wine and herbs. Ingredient x  in this recipe is the cinnamon which is what really lifts the whole dish giving it a strong heart.

It could be said that this is a poor man’s moussaka as it has similar flavours and ingredients but it is a lot quicker to prepare and a lot lighter.

The recipe below is how I like to cook Papoutsakia, but like most recipes there is plenty of scope to make it your own.  I use lamb mince, but there is no reason why beef, pork or veal mince cannot be used, or even lentils.  I use tinned finely chopped tomatoes but if I had fresh tomatoes I would use those, again it is down to what is at hand.  I use a cinnamon stick placed into the meat while it is cooking but ground cinnamon is as good.

The cheesy bechamel sauce can be made to suit what you have in the fridge.  Ideally I would use Kefalotyri but I don’t always have it and so I sometimes use Pecorino or Romano cheese and if I feel I have some Cheddar to use up, I will add that instead.  The important ingredient in the bechamel is the egg, as it is this that creates the light velvety fluffy texture to the topping.  The scattering of further grated cheese on the top is to help create the golden brown effect that looks so inviting.

I have written the recipe for medium sized aubergines as that is what I am finding in the market at the moment.  Make sure to pick shiny plump aubergines which are at their peak. I also sprinkle the aubergines when halved with salt as I feel this draws out the bitterness in the aubergine, it’s a personal choice as I hear so many others tell me they don’t bother as aubergines are not bitter any more. I know that the larger aubergines can be a little bitter and that there are two types of aubergine male and female, the female being the sweeter of the two!!

I have baked the aubergines before filling, other recipes suggest frying.  I have found that aubergines love olive oil and tend to absorb a lot of oil in the pan which does add to the flavour but I prefer to bake them.  Firstly, I am saving on the olive oil and secondly there is less splashing and spitting, so much cleaner and easier.

Please note the photos below are using only 2 aubergines.

Papoutsakia – Little Shoes

Serves 4

Ingredients

4 medium aubergines

Salt

Olive oil

1 medium onion chopped finely (red or white)

1-2 cloves of garlic minced

400g  lamb mince (pork, beef or veal)

1 glass of red wine (optional) or water

400g tin of chopped tomatoes

1 tsp sugar

1 tbs oregano (or a little more!)

Bechamel Sauce

40gms butter

40gms flour

400ml milk (full fat)

Kefalotyri cheese or Percorino/Romano cheese or even another hard cheese such as a Cheddar

1 egg beaten

salt and pepper

Method

Slice the aubergines in half lengthwise.   With a knife carefully, without piercing the, make criss cross cuts into the creamy flesh.  Sprinkle with salt and leave, skin up, in a dish for 30-50mins.  This is to draw out any bitterness in the aubergines.  Rinse under cold water and dry.

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Brush the aubergines with olive oil inside and out and place skin side up in a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Place in an oven 180C for 15 minutes and then turn them over for another 15mins.  The aubergines should be slightly soft to the touch.

Remove from the oven and, with a spoon, carefully remove the central flesh from the aubergine leaving a scooped out shell.  Finely chop the scooped out flesh and put to one side.

Meat Sauce

Put a little olive oil in a pan and fry the chopped onion until translucent, then add the minced garlic, fry a little more but do not brown the garlic.

Add the mince to the pan with the garlic and onion and fry until brown, breaking up any lumps.

Add the glass of red wine to the pan and stir for a couple of minutes.

Add the tin of chopped tomatoes and a teaspoon of sugar, along with the oregano, salt and pepper.  Stir and allow to simmer for 20 minutes.  If the pan dries out too much add a little water.

Turn the oven onto 180C.

After 20 minutes add the chopped aubergine to the pan, stir and cook for a further 10 minutes or until all the liquid as been absorbed.

Set aside.

Bechamel sauce

In a pan melt the butter and add the flour. Stir the flour and butter well, and cook until a thick paste forms.  Slowly add the milk stiring continuously. Stir until the sauce comes to a gentle boil, keep stirring and remove from the heat when the sauce has thickened.

Add the grated cheese and stir.

Leave the bechamel to cool a little then add a tablespoon of the mixture to the beaten egg. Beat, then slowly add the egg to the belchamel sauce whisking as you add it.  If the bechamel is too hot and the egg added too quickly it will cook the egg and create a curdled appearance.

Assembly

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Remove the cinnamon stick if used and spoon the meat mixture into the aubergine shells.  Then cover with the bechamel sauce. Top with grated cheese and place in an oven at 180C for 30 mins or until the belchamel sauce has started to brown.

Serve with a Greek Salad or just a hunk of bread and a glass of Greek wine.

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