It’s not often that I write of my garden any more. It’s gone as feral as I have, it’s hair wild and tossed as various volunteers wrestle with each other for light and air and water. Cardoons are king, a tuft of oregano clings to its corner, and wild arugula holds a beachhead in every free spot. A few stray salsify plants stand as islands in the fray. And, along one edge of the garden stands a windswept tepee of bamboo. On it twine the decaying remnants of runner beans.
White runner beans, so large they could stand in for the greatest bean of all, the Greek gigandes bean. While I love my tepary beans, tiny refugees from the Sonoran Desert, they are survivors in a harsh land. These giant runner beans, often an inch across or more, speak to be of plenty, of luxury, of peace.
And peace is what I’ve been settling into, after nearly seven months on the road. I am relearning how to putter, how to sit still. It has not been easy. I fidget constantly. I wonder if I will ever cater again? Will my book be judged a success? Where might I be able to pitch a story a magazine might like? Will I be given the privilege of writing a second book?
To break this tide of worry I often get out of my chair, stretch and walk away. Usually it is into the neglected places around my house, where wild plants and mushrooms await me. But sometimes it is just outside, into my back yard, where my feral garden lives its life without me. I took such a break two days ago, and there my beans lay dying. I felt one of the leathery pods. It was swollen inside, a good sign. I opened one and saw the beautiful white beans, plump and happy.
By some small miracle, I’d come into my garden to find my beans at precisely the moment they wanted to be picked. All were ripe, and only a few had passed their plumpness and edged into the hardness we all get as we age. Excited, I picked them all.
Beans are not a food we associate with urgency. Beans are stored wealth. They are an assurance that come winter cold, we will have something good to eat. But those of us who grow beans know otherwise. When they are picked at the proper time, as I was lucky enough to do, they are as full and as in their prime as an athlete, yet as supple as a dancer. This is fleeting moment to be celebrated.
A bowl of beans, cooked when they are at this mystical moment, is not poverty food. It is as rich and as soul satisfying as the richest haunch of meat, the most decadent of desserts. There is a moment in the movie “Big Night” where someone asks Primo the chef what is in the magic dish timpano. His answer: Everything that is good in life. Such as it is with this dish, which is not Italian, but Greek in origin. OK, maybe it doesn’t have everything that is good in life, but it does have much in it that hits high notes to balance the bass of the beans.
Roasted red peppers. Real Greek oregano, given to me by my friend Lexy, in Montana of all places. Red onions, a little vinegar and lots and lots of olive oil. Good olive oil, too. Enjoy this as a meal in itself more than a side dish. It is an excellent lunch, served at room temperature.
I know my garden will present me with other gifts in good time. Perhaps the cardoons will ready themselves before our weather heats up again. My sunchokes rest in their beds; I await rain to loosen them from the soil. And if not, soon enough the days will lengthen again and it will be time to plant onions and peas and favas, my favorite bean of all.
Until then I will try to sit still. At least for a little while.
Greek stewed beans
I am using a large white runner bean in place of the traditional Greek gigandes bean. Other good substitutes would be lima beans, butter beans or even favas. You want a large, meaty bean. It need not be white. As in most Greek recipes, because there are only a few ingredients it becomes more important that each one be good. Buy the best roasted red peppers you can afford. Use good oregano and good olive oil. You will taste the difference.
Once cooked, these beans can be stored in the fridge for a week; they’re actually better several days later. Serve warm or at room temperature with lots of crusty bread.
If you don’t have fresh beans, soak dried ones overnight in water. If you are in more of a hurry, boil some water and pour that over the dried beans. They should be hydrated in a couple hours. Try not to use canned beans here, as much of their flavor comes from soaking up all that good olive oil and oregano flavor.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 2-3 hours
- 1 pound large, meaty beans (if dried, soak overnight in water)
- 1 12-ounce jar of roasted red peppers, or 4 fresh red peppers, roasted and chopped
- 1 large red onion, chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano, Greek if possible
- 3 bay leaves
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- Red wine vinegar and black pepper (for garnish)
- Preheat your oven to 225 degrees. In a large, lidded pot gently cook the onions in olive oil until they are soft, but now browned. Salt them a little while they cook. Add everything else but the vinegar, plus enough water to barely cover the beans. Cover the pot and cook in the oven for 2 hours, or until the beans are lovely and soft. Do not rush this by turning up the hear. Beans need to cook slowly.
- When the beans are nicely soft, ladle some out into a bowl and garnish with black pepper and a little red wine vinegar. Serve warm or cold with bread and wine.