Balkan Style Green Beans

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

This is a recipe that brings me back to my childhood instantly. My Grandma would make this at least once a week; sometimes on its own sprinkled with some feta cheese on top (Greek style) and sometimes stewed with small pieces of pork (Romanian style) as a meal on to itself. If you're from the Balkan area, this recipe will sound very familiar and bring you right back. If you're not, then hopefully it'll give you a new take on the classic green bean.

Green beans on their own are fabulous. The American variety is readily available, affordable, and generally goes with most meals. If you grew up in America chances are you're used to green beans cooked one of two ways: either blanched (or steamed) until just turned bright green, shocked in ice water, and served alongside a protein OR horrendously bland, limp green beans slathered in a heavy cream sauce and topped with canned fried onions. Although I've grown to appreciate the perfect crispness in a blanched green bean, the way Europeans cook green beans is totally opposite: they cook the ever-loving shit out of them, usually in a mock stew-like fashion. And it's fucking awesome.

The green beans when cooked for an hour take on a totally different texture. Instead of crisp and crunchy, they're soft and silken, infused with the flavors of a broth or sauce (usually tomato-based) and super rich and earthy in flavor. In my opinion, I feel you get a better and more well-rounded taste for this humble garden vegetable when they're cooked in this fashion.

The usual suspects for the sauce part of this dish include onion and/or garlic base, tomatoes (either fresh or canned), and time. The prep time for the dish is very quick and easy, and it's one of those things you can leave on the stove for an hour and walk away, come back and find perfection. It also tastes even better if you make it the day before and let it sit overnight for the flavors to infuse even more.

My grandma would make a few versions, like I said. Greek style involved an onion and light garlic hand, tomatoes, and a bit of fresh dill stewed with the beans. After they were done she'd serve them slightly warmer than room temperature, topped with some crumbled feta cheese. She usually would make this in spring and summer. Sometimes she'd make a meal out of it, and render some bacon or pork first in the pan, then add the onions and tomatoes, green beans, etc. and make a truer stew. This was usually in winter and spring. Sometimes she'd use chicken thighs instead for the meat. Never beef or seafood.

I made this version the classic, base way (Greek style) so you can get a sense of the foundation of the dish. It comes together so easily and the taste is amazing. If you're getting bored with green beans, then definitely try this dish...I'm pretty sure it'll renew your faith in the humble veg. Enjoy! And cheers to my Grandma/Yia Yia!

Balkan Green Beans (in the style of Greece)
2 lbs fresh green beans -- stems trimmed and washed thoroughly in cold water
1/2 cup (about 1/2 of a medium sized) white onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup tomato sauce*
1/4 cup water
freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fresh dill, chopped fine
fresh feta cheese, crumbled for topping (optional)

Take the beans and pat dry. Chop into 1" bite-sized pieces. (You can also leave them whole; if you do this add another 1/2 hour on cooking time).

Heat oil in a medium-sized pot. Add the onions and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Cook on medium-low heat until soft, about 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the garlic and stir to combine. Add the green beans and mix to incorporate, then add the tomato and water, and dill, mixing again so all ingredients are combined. Bring to a boil then reduce heat to low, cover with lid, and let cook 1 hour.

After an hour check the beans and give a taste. Adjust with seasoning to taste and turn off heat.

This dish is best served warm rather than piping hot, or even at room temperature and even cold. My recommendation is room temperature to warm. Top with feta cheese if using, and serve.

*Grandma would make this a few different ways, depending on the season and what we had on hand. Summer time she'd take fresh tomatoes from the garden and give them a fine chop. Rest of the year she'd use canned tomato sauce or canned crushed tomatoes. The main difference will be in the texture of the stew: fresh and crushed tomatoes will give a chunkier consistency while using tomato sauce will be a thinner sauce. In a pinch, you can even use some jarred marinara. But don't tell Grandma I said that!

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