I bought a packet of rocket from Marks and Sparks yesterday, one of those little inflatable cushions stuffed with leaves. They are weedy affairs, the leaves, thin and soft and tasting of not an awful lot. A week ago in Athens I had a salad of tomatoes and rocket, the latter brought over from Dida’s garden in Corinth. Each leaf was dark, crisp and punchy, each an athlete next to the bunch of drippy nerds from M&S. Greece is not a gastronome’s paradise, but I’m convinced that almost all food out there tastes of more than most food does here. Sailland’s aphorism ‘la cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le goût de ce qu'elles sont’ is taken for granted in Greece. Here, unless you search hard and pay transnasally, most food tastes of bugger all.
Gigantes, pronounced (more or less) YEE-gan-dess, are fat white beans frequently on the menu in tavernas as part of a meze, a selection of little appetizers presented all at once for your picking and nibbling pleasure. I’m very partial to gigantes plaki, a recipe for which is provided below. Eaten with salads and bread and dips such as tsatsiki and taramosalata, they make you feel replete and healthy and with all that fibre, they fairly plummet through the system. I’ve brought some back with me to cook for myself. You can buy them in tins, and they are not so bad, but you miss out on the virtuous glow to be had from taking something bubbling, aromatic and garlicky from the oven.
You must soak your gigantes overnight before you even think of cooking them. Someone I knew in Kalamata, dragged over to Greece from Australia by her parents to marry a man from the old country, decided one day to show willing and cook Sunday lunch for her extended family. She planned to serve gigantes, but omitted the soaking. Thus the assembled in-laws and cousins were presented with a tureen of aromatically sauced marbles which, stabbed at with forks, pinged and ricocheted off the walls and light fittings, smashing people's dentures and spectacles. So mind you bloody well soak them. You also need to watch them as they cook, and catch them at the point after they turn soft but before they disintegrate. Insufficiently-cooked gigantes are murder on the digestion and will turn your gut into a fizzing, bubbling Kipp’s apparatus.
So, take your gigantes, or butterbeans if you can’t find any, and soak them. I suspect butterbeans would need less soaking than gigantes. Fry some onions and garlic in olive oil, and when these are soft, add some chopped tomatoes, some oregano and bay leaves, and your beans. Barely cover with water and simmer until the beans begin to soften. The skins will split: what matter? Be unperturbed. Back in the nineties, the Greek supermarket chain Vassilopoulos sold boil-in-the-bag gigantes which carried this reassuring notice in English: 'the swelling of the package after warming does not inspire any uneasiness'. When your beans begin to soften, you can add salt and pepper, a little dried mint and some lemon juice, then finally a teaspoon of sugar. Transfer the pot to the oven where you finish the beans off. The sugar will caramelize and form little bits of crisp crust on top of the sauce. Serve at room temperature, with a little chopped parsley scattered over. Eat alone, or with someone whose bodily functions you are prepared to put up with afterwards.
Kitchen with Potatoes
If I asked the kids I taught in Kalamata what they had been doing before the lesson, the stock response was 'I go my school, after I go my house, I eat kitchen with potatoes, and I read.' 'I read' is usually to be understood as 'I did my homework', and 'kitchen' is of course chicken, a favourite metathesis among foreign learners. Greek-style Kitchen with Potatoes is easy, cheap and cheerful, which explains its lunchtime ubiquity, and you make it in this wise, or at least I do:
Get yourself a chicken, or if eating alone, a chicken's leg, or such other parts of its anatomy as excite your desire. Do not even think of removing the skin. Peel some spuds and cut them into chunks or thick chips. Combine some olive oil, a teaspoon of mustard, some freshly squeezed lemon and orange juice and some Aromat or Marigold Swiss Bouillon powder. Your spuds are then tossed in this mixture, and thus anointed, disposed around your chicken. Cook the assemblage until you are really quite utterly delighted. Strew with chopped parsley or dill, if desired. I actually prefer the potatoes to the kitchen.