‘In Neapolitan culture, foods that could potentially damage children’s health include crackers, ketchup, hot dogs, cold milk, anything in a can, anything that has ever been frozen, and anything that has ever been in a microwave. Oh, and anything that comes from a supermarket’. I’ve just read this passage in Katherine Wilson’s wonderful book, ‘Only in Naples, Lessons in Food and Famiglia’. It’s official then, I am Italian; except that I don’t agree with the canned part; I’m a fan, so long as those cans contain wholefood goodness such as beans and pulses, Italian tomatoes of any variety and Portuguese sardines. However, the difference between canned beans and the dried variety is incredible so it’s well worth the effort. The effort here is perceived because working with dried beans involves soaking – right, so you cover the beans with water and leave them to soak overnight (huge amount of work involved there) and boiling them – for a few minutes in the case of chickpeas and for an hour and a half for the incredibly creamy Greek gigantes beans – whilst you get to do something lovely in the serene confines of your own home. You get my point, preparing dried beans is a breeze. In the name of authenticity, I have prepared these Greek beans – inspired by a classic dish of Gigantes Plaki served to me at a beach side taverna on the stunning island of Santorini – from scratch, using gigantes from the mountainous region of Florina. I’ve used nettle tops again in an effort to respect the Greek’s love of foraging for wild greens but you can substitute these for Swiss chard in the summer or spinach in the winter. This lovely dish is great served hot with crusty sourdough with a Greek salad on the side or cold, as part of a classic Greek mezze table.
500g dried gigantes beans, soaked overnight
1 red onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for serving
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 400g tin of Italian cherry tomatoes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to your taste
300g nettle tops (you can also use Swiss chard or spinach)
30g dill, finely chopped, plus extra for serving
30g mint, finely chopped
How I make it
Drain and rinse the beans, place in a large lidded pan and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boil and simmer until the beans are soft but retain a little bite, around 1.5 hours.
Meanwhile, wearing latex gloves, carefully cut the nettle leaves off the stalks. Fill a sink with cold water and wash the leaves using a slotted spoon to stir them around before transferring them to a clean tea towel to absorb the excess liquid. Put a little water in a large lidded frying pan and place on a medium heat. Cover and sweat down the leaves in batches. Leave aside to cool, squeeze out all the water and chop finely (the process will kill the sting). The same cooking process applies if you’re using Swiss chard or spinach.
Then gently sauté the onions and garlic in 2 tbsp of the oil until they are soft and translucent.
Add the oregano and tomato purée and stir for around a minute.
Add the cherry tomatoes and 500ml of water. Bring to the boil and simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes. Season to your taste.
Heat an oven to 160C.
Add the chopped greens and herbs to the tomato sauce and transfer to a large heatproof dish, adding more water to ensure that everything is more or less covered. Drizzle with the remaining oil and bake for 40 minutes to warm everything through.
Remove from oven, drizzle with a little olive oil and scatter over some chopped dill.