Gigantes Plaki, Anything is Possible

I learned how to make gigantes plaki, a Greek, bean dish, in 2011, while stranded on a Greek island. I happened to be visiting the country during the anti-austerity movement and had made my way to one of the islands. 2011 was the same year that the Occupy Wall Street movement got started. A couple of days before I was set to depart the island, there were demonstrations in coordination with the Occupy movement. The seamen’s union went on strike and shut down the ferry traffic between the islands. I was stuck at my couchsurfer’s house, who not only graciously let me continue to crash at his place, but also invited me to cook and protest with him. He and his university friends on the island were participating in the peaceful occupation of the city municipal building.

Today we are living through a unique moment in history, characterized by the highest levels of mass-protest we have ever seen. Nonviolent mass movements are a worldwide trend that is profoundly changing politics. In an otherwise disheartening field of research, given everything we learn about the impact of human actions, this trend gives environmental scientists and activists hope. When climate scientists make projections about future earth and climate scenarios, they are primarily grim. However, there is a growing consensus among researchers that one element can dramatically change our future for the better: us. Nonviolent mass movements of people may be the only way to get us off the path of extraction and exploitation we find ourselves on. History shows that peaceful protests are twice as likely to succeed as violent conflicts, and when 3.5% of the population participates, civil movements have never failed. The research cited at the top of this paragraph also shows that at a time of growing authoritarianism, shaky democracies, social alienation, and polarization, the success rate of mass protests is in decline.

As we live through the reality of social distancing, mass social movements may seem like an impossibility. I would ask you to interrogate the impossible. Did you ever imagine that we would be where we are today? More than one-third of the world population has been ordered to stay indoors, the economy is in a state of catatonia, and masks and hand sanitizers are the most valuable commodities. We often talk about the lessons we should learn from the coronavirus pandemic. Central for me is that anything is possible.

When you find yourself stuck at home, surrounded by cans of beans and tomatoes, try to make the most of it. I know what the Greeks are doing; hopefully, feta cheese isn’t sold out at your grocery store as it is for them!

Gigantes Plaki

Makes four servings.

Ingredients

  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tbsp tomato purée 
  • 1 can (400 gr) chopped tomatoes
  • 600 gr cooked, gigantes beans (see note)
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 150g feta and/or kalamata olives
  • Parsley, chopped (optional)
  • Crushed red pepper (optional)
  • Bread to sop up the sauce

Steps

  1. Heat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
  2. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof frying pan or shallow casserole dish, and gently cook the onion until translucent. And garlic, tomato paste, and a pinch of crushed red pepper if using. Stir and cook for 2 minutes or so. Add the can of tomatoes and beans. Rinse out the can of tomatoes with a little bit of water and pour that into the pan. Add the oregano. Bring to a simmer. Simmer for about five minutes to heat up the beans well. Taste the sauce and season with salt, but not too much. The feta and olives add saltiness. Lastly, add the kalamata olive slices, if using.
  3. Pour some olive oil onto a large, oven-proof pan, pour the mixture into the pan. If using feta, drop feta crumbles into the beans and dip some into the sauce to cover them. Bake in the oven for 30-45 minutes or until thickened and bubbling. The longer, the thicker and more concentrated the sauce gets.
  4. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and/or a drizzle of olive oil and serve with toasted bread.

NOTES:

  • If you want to make this recipe vegan, omit the feta and use plenty of kalamata olives. You really need either olives or feta (or both!) in this recipe to punch up the flavor.
  • I use a large, white bean called gigantes, common in Greece. In Germany, they are called Weiße Riesenbohnen. In the US it might be easier to use butter beans or lima beans. If using dried beans, soak them overnight before boiling in salted water until tender. I use about 250 gr dried beans and usually boil them the night before. If you can’t find gigantes, my family has prepared this dish with garbanzo beans and small white beans instead and they work just fine as a substitute.

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