This is a true story. I learned to juggle from a book called “A Hundred Ways to Show off”. It included a trick to rip the Manhattan telephone book in half by placing it in the oven until crispy. Next to this was a serious dissertation of school yard poetry. The cultural highlight was “Beans, beans, the musical fruit the more you eat the more you…..” I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. I had much more time in high school for these diversions.
Along with growing up with three brothers, is it a surprise that writing about white beans would come so naturally to me?
Although they are the butt of many a crude joke, this self effacing crop is both inexpensive and high in nutritional value. The humble white bean is a good source of protein, thiamin, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and manganese, as well as high in dietary fiber and folate. Its low glycemic index makes it an appropriate choice for diabetics or those who want to control their sugar intake.
While other species of the pea family, such as lentils and fava beans have been used in the Mediterranean region from antiquity, Phaseolus vulgarus, or the common bean, was only recently introduced. It is endemic to the Americas and spread to other parts of the world during the heyday Spanish exploration. The bean is a hardy annual that can adapt to a wide range of climatic and geological conditions, making it an important agricultural commodity as far north as Europe.
In the Balkans it has become synonymous for the regional cuisine, much as falafel symbolizes the Levant. A popular way of preparing it in Romania is white bean puree, a mash reminiscent of the Middle Eastern hummus salad. In the Republic of Macedonia, tavče gravče (which translates to pan or pot of beans), is considered the national dish and traditionally baked in a clay pot until the beans are as soft as ripe mangoes. The bordering Macedonian Greeks prepare fassoulotavas using a very similar recipe. These slow cooked beans are equally popular in North Africa where they are paired with fragrant tomato sauce and eaten with steamed couscous. Libyan workers’ diners in Israel still serve up this combination, often with large chunks of carrots or pumpkin.
Across the ocean, Canadians add maple syrup along with tomatoes to their baked beans and in Boston molasses and salt pork is most popular. Even the French have their hearty cassoulet, melded together in a sheath of pork or duck fat.
I first tasted tavče gravče in a small eatery in the Turkish Bazaar in Skopje, the capital city of the Republic of Macedonia. The second time was in the Šar Mountain region where the hotel’s chef, Svetko was kind enough to give me the recipe. Farmers would prepare this dish a day in advance and place it on the dying embers to slowly cook through the night. The following day they would have a hearty midday lunch. This is also the typical way of preparing hamin, the traditional Jewish Shabbat meal. Instead of a wood fire, an oven or electric hotplate is now most often used.
Tavče Gravče, Republic of Macedonian White Bean Stew
I used a simple glazed clay pot for this recipe although an oven proof casserole dish would do as well.
Two cups of white beans, soaked overnight in a copious amount of water (about 3-4 times more water than beans).
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
700 grams stewing meat, lamb or beef cut into large chunks (optional)
1 tablespoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
Parsley and/or mint for garnish
Preheat the oven to 125°C ( 257°F) Fry the onion in vegetable oil until translucent. Drain the beans and add them to the pot. Add the paprika, salt, pepper and garlic and mix until combined. If using, add the meat. Add enough water to barely cover the beans. When the beans are ready, the upper crust forms a chewy, golden layer, protecting the softer beans below. Garnish with chopped parsley or mint.
Serve with shopska salad made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, oil and vinegar and a cloud of grated Bulgarian (Sirene cheese) on top.