By MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN
Published: November 12, 2012
The recent feature in The New York Times Magazine about Ikaria, the island in Greece renowned for the longevity of its population, brought back wonderful memories of a two-week stay on that island, where I studied its cuisine and the cuisines of many of the other regions of Greece with the prolific Greek-American food writer Diane Kochilas. Diane’s family comes from Ikaria. She was born and raised in Queens, but during one of her many summer stays on the familial island, she fell in love with an Ikarian artist and photographer, Vassilis Stenos (you can see his amazing photography in her latest book, “The Country Cooking of Greece”), and eventually she moved to Greece. She and her family divide their time between Athens and Ikaria, and Diane spends a lot of time in New York, where she is the consulting chef at the Greek restaurants Boukies and Pylos.
I’ve written before about Greek vegetarian main dishes. The culture is rich with them, both vegan dishes and dishes with cheese and eggs. I know that Greek food is not exactly what comes to mind when you hear the word “Thanksgiving,” yet why not consider this cuisine if you’re searching for a meatless main dish that will please a crowd? It’s certainly a better idea, in my mind, than Tofurky and all of the other overprocessed attempts at making a vegan turkey. If you want to serve something that will be somewhat reminiscent of a turkey, make the stuffed acorn squashes in this week’s selection, and once they’re out of the oven, stick some feathers in the “rump,” as I did for the first vegetarian Thanksgiving I ever cooked: I stuffed and baked a huge crookneck squash, then decorated it with turkey feathers. The filling wasn’t nearly as good as the one you’ll get this week, but the creation was fun.
Giant Beans With Spinach, Tomatoes and Feta
This delicious, dill-infused dish is inspired by a northern Greek recipe from Diane Kochilas’s wonderful new cookbook, “The Country Cooking of Greece.” The traditional way to wilt spinach in that part of Greece is to salt it lightly, put it in a colander and knead it against the sides of the colander for about 10 minutes. I find blanching or steaming the spinach more efficient, and a better method for those who need to watch their salt intake.
1/2 pound (about 1 1/8 cups) dried Greek giant beans, giant lima beans or Christmas limas, washed and picked over
1 1/2 quarts water
1 bay leaf
1 onion, cut in half
Salt to taste
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 large bunches spinach, (1 1/2 to 2 pounds), stemmed and washed
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 leek, white and light green part only, chopped
1 bunch scallions, trimmed and chopped
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup chopped fresh dill
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice, pulsed to a coarse purée in a food processor
Freshly ground pepper
4 ounces Greek feta cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)
1. Combine the beans, water, bay leaf, halved onion, and crushed garlic in a large saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat and simmer 30 minutes. Add salt to taste and simmer another 30 minutes. The beans should be al dente: not yet soft but not hard either. Remove from the heat. Using tongs, remove and discard the onion, garlic and bay leaf. Place a strainer over a bowl and drain the beans. Taste the broth and adjust seasonings. Set aside.
2. While the beans are simmering, blanch the spinach in a large pot of salted boiling water for 20 seconds, or steam just until it wilts, abut 1 minute. Transfer to a bowl of cold water, then drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop coarsely.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet and add the leek and the scallions. Add a pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until the mixture is tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to an ovenproof casserole or baking dish, preferably earthenware. Stir in the spinach, parsley, dill, beans, half the tomato purée, 2 cups of the bean broth and half the feta. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in another tablespoon of olive oil. Place the remaining tomatoes over the top and sprinkle on the remaining feta. Drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Cover and place in the oven.
5. Bake 1 to 2 hours, checking the liquid every 20 minutes to make sure that the beans are submerged; add more bean broth if necessary. When they’re done, the beans will be creamy but intact.
Variation: If you don’t want to cook the spinach so long, so that it is brighter, add it when the beans are tender. Stir it in and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. If you want a vegan dish, leave out the cheese.
Yield: 6 servings
Advance preparation: This tastes best if made a day ahead. Reheat in a medium oven until it begins to bubble.
Nutritional information per serving: 293 calories; 12 grams fat; 4 grams saturated fat; 1 gram polyunsaturated fat; 6 grams monounsaturated fat; 17 milligrams cholesterol; 36 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams dietary fiber; 532 milligrams sodium (does not include salt to taste); 15 grams protein