With postwar guilt, he decried bratwurst, sauerbraten, and Konigsberger Klopse as dishes verging on poison. They were the Hitler of foods. Instead, he looked to our own Greek diet–our eggplant aswim in tomato sauce, our cucumber dressings and fish egg-spreads, our pilafi, raisins and figs–as potential curatives, as live-giving, artery-cleansing, skin-smoothing wonder drugs…They didn’t call it Grecian Formula for nothing. It was in our food! A veritable fountain of youth in our dolmades and taramasalata and even in our baklava, which didn’t commit the sin of containing refined sugar, but only honey.
-Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex)
If my younger self had known, at age 7, 10, 12, 15 or even 18, that I was one day going to be singing the praises of lima beans, she would have been very disappointed. In fact, I’m pretty sure she would have seen me as a traitor to the cause of rejecting food on the simple grounds that it seemed disgusting and unworthy of her (as yet untried) palate. I can still recall family dinners from my youth and the many moments during which my mother or grandmother would play the game of reverse psychology, offering me things like lima beans, onions and other vegetables (I rarely said no to dessert, after all! Only vegetables and certain meats–liver, veal!–needed to be subtly proposed), and, after I would always make a face that was half-shy refusal and half-sneer, would smugly say, “Well, then, there’s more for the rest of us!” and happily take a bite of whatever they were offering.
There were moments when I really did wonder what I was missing, but usually the sight or the smell of these foods made me certain that I was on the Path of Righteousness. Lima beans were just too squishy looking; I couldn’t bring myself to do it. But fast-forward many years into the future and my ripe 28-year-old self suddenly wanted to expand her palate and to make amends with the shunned foods of her youth. Lima beans immediately sprang to mind. I think the idea had been planted there by a New York Times article on travel in Greece, or possibly by a Favorites List by Heidi of 101 Cookbooks. Or even by the fact that the Greek sent me this picture from his current trip home (look at that happy and relaxed posture!) and, wanting to experience the magic of Greece, I decided I had to recreate it myself, in my very own kitchen. If I couldn’t have the sea, the swimming and the sunshine, I could at least have the food. Lima beans cooked in a tomato sauce and then topped with oregano pesto and feta was clearly the way to go.
I didn’t imagine, however, what a process this would be. Granted, if you, unlike me, had done anything besides relax this past weekend, you might have approached this recipe like any reasonable person would have, i.e. you would have soaked the beans overnight, rather than soaking the beans, cooking the beans, making the tomato sauce, preparing the pesto and baking the beans all in one day. I kid you not: I started the whole process around 1 p.m. Don Draper and I didn’t have dinner together until about 8:45 p.m. Granted, the good news is that, despite the extensive process, this is not a high maintenance meal. You let the beans do their thing (water does all the work, although it’s important to simmer lima beans on low heat; you don’t want them to fall apart. A gentle simmer is all it takes!), the sauce will also, despite the occasional stir, take care of itself. The most hands-on part of the meal is the pesto (especially when you forget that you shouldn’t keep textbooks and paper around olive oil that can easily splash).
Honestly, I took care of several important tasks while the meal basically cooked itself, from email correspondence to pedagogy assignments. And it was nice to know that, after all the work I was doing, dinner would be ready and lunch for the week also taken care of. Provided, of course, that I actually liked how things turned out. Never forget that 3 cups of dried lima beans will go a long, long way…Especially when it’s dinner for one. I guess you could say I was in a gambling kind of mood.
The good news is that, despite my former lima bean bias, this recipe convinced me that maybe, just maybe, I had been wrong those many years ago. Lima beans weren’t boring or gross. They could be tender, yet chewy; they could be covered in a sauce that was flavorful and took the bean from the level of mere legume to bean deluxe. A topping of pesto could add a richly fragrant touch to the creaminess of the beans, while the feta could contribute a note of tangy saltiness. All in all, it made me think that my mom and grandma really had been right all those years ago when they said that my stubbornness just meant more limas for their lucky selves. And now I’m more than making up for lost time.
Giant Lima Beans with Stewed Tomatoes and Pesto
Adapted from Laurence Jossel for Food and Wine
Since, in my lima bean inexperience, I didn’t want to stray too far into unknowns, the only thing I skipped in the recipe was the breadcrumbs (I instead ate the beans with toasted garlic bread; this is the kind of recipe you want to have bread around for dipping purposes). I also used a 28-ounce can of tomatoes instead of only 16. For as many beans as you end up with, I think it’s only fair to add more tomatoes. Is more sauce ever a bad thing?
For the Lima Beans:
3 cups dried giant lima beans or gigantes, rinsed and picked over, then soaked for 3 1/2-4 hours and drained
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, minced
One 28-ounce can whole tomatoes—juices reserved, tomatoes coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
1 cup coarsely crumbled feta cheese, for sprinkling
For the pesto:
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons chopped oregano
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 small garlic clove, minced
-Prepare the lima beans in a large saucepan, cover with 2 inches of water and bring to a boil.
-Simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the limas are just tender but still al dente, about 2-2 1/2 hours (add water as needed to keep the limas covered by 2 inches; also, remember to simmer gently).
-Season the limas with salt and let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes.
-Drain the limas, reserving 1 1/2 cups of the cooking liquid.
-In a medium saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and cook over moderately low heat until softened, about 6-8 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes, oregano and the reserved bean-cooking liquid and simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has reduced to 1 1/2-2 cups, about 1 hour.
-Season the tomato sauce with salt.
-In the meantime, make the pesto in a mini food processor, combine the olive oil with the oregano, parsley and garlic and pulse to a coarse puree.
-Season the oregano pesto with salt.
-Preheat the oven to 425°.
-In a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, mix the limas with the tomato sauce and sprinkle the feta on top. -Bake in the upper third of the oven for about 40 minutes, until the beans are bubbling and the cheese is browned.
-Remove the baking dish from the oven and let stand for 10 minutes.
-Top with the oregano-parsley pesto and serve. Enjoy a lima bean experience you’ve never had before!