White beans, similar to Italian cannellini – a New World legume – along with lentils and chickpeas were a staple of the impoverished Greek diet until the ’70s. In my first grade school book, published right after the Second World War, there was a description of fassolàda (bean soup), often referred to as ‘the Greek national dish,’ surprisingly without tomato. I was shocked, as fassolàda is always made with tomatoes, or ‘golden apples’ as they were initially called, from the Italian word pomodoro. Tomatoes became a common household ingredient all over the country at the beginning of the 20th century, but they were slow to penetratefassolàda, apparently. The fact that a tomato-less recipe for fassolàda endured for half a century after the introduction of tomatoes to the Greek kitchen shows the age and strong traditions behind the dish.
But times do change, and in this case for the better. Fassolàda means tomatoes, which ‘make everything taste better,’ as my grandmother used to say. My addition to the family recipe is the inclusion of turmeric, which deepens the flavor of all legumes. My mother added orange peel, when available, to most dishes with tomatoes, inspired by the days she had spent in Sparta in the southern Peloponnese, an area filled with orange and olive groves. She later started to add mustard to her fassolàda, claiming that it made the beans easier to digest. I have my doubts about the apothecary’s claim, but mustard certainly enhances the soup’s flavor. I sometimes add chopped preserved lemon instead of the orange, omitting of reducing the amount of salt.
Precooking the Beans
If you love legumes like we do, you obviously feel frustrated when you want to make a dish with beans and realize that you needed to have planned a day in advance. But that problem can be easily solved if you precook and freeze a fair amount of beans and chickpeas. I have always a bag of pre-cooked beans in my freezer—when I use them up I make new ones. Each time I take out as much I need and finish cooking them with the other ingredients. My favorite bean dish can be ready in less than thirty minutes, the time needed to cook the vegetables, grains and or the split peas that I add to my beans. Green or yellow split peas need about 20 minutes to cook and add a delicious creamy texture to the bean soup.
American friends assure me that there are some very good canned chickpeas and beans available, but for me there is no comparison to the taste of the dry, organic legumes you soak and cook on your own stove.
I usually precook one pound of beans (roughly half a kilo) which is about 2 cups. When the beans are cooked they will almost triple as they absorb water; the 6 cups cooked beans will be enough for 6-8 serving, if cooked by themselves, which is seldom the way I serve them. I usually add greens, vegetables and grains, so each time I cook about 2 cups of beans that make roughly 4 servings.
To precook the beans, soak them in a large bowl, adding enough cold water to cover the beans by about 4 inches. Let stand overnight–for 10 to 12 hours. Canellini, pinto, and navy beans need less soaking (6 to 8 hours) but you can safely soak all kinds of beans overnight.
The next morning, rinse the beans under cold water, place in a large pot, and cover the beans with water by about 4 inches. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, cook for 5 minutes, drain in a colander, and rinse well under warm running water.
Rinse the pot, put the beans back in, and cover with fresh cold or lukewarm water.
Add 3-4 sprigs of oregano or thyme or 3-4 bay leaves, if you like. They will fill the kitchen with a nice aroma as the beans cook.
Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer the beans for about 20 minutes. Taste—the beans should be almost cooked; if they are still too hard, cook a few minutes more.
Turn off the heat and let the beans cool completely in their broth. Drain, discard the herbs, transfer to a zip-top bag, and freeze flat. They will keep in the freezer for up to 6 months.
To cook, take out the bag, beat on the counter to loosen the beans, measure and use as many as you need. Then close the bag and return to the freezer to have beans ready for the next dish.
See the Recipe: Fassoláda (bean soup) Revisited