I lay on the bedspread with its pink and purple gardenias that match the curtains that my grandma has sewn. Anywhere else, the pattern would be positively gaudy. But in this place, this moment – they are just right. The breeze is powerful and salty and full of clay-earth. It blows the curtains like great flowery sails above my head. I stare at the ceiling, listening to the clock that accompanies me through each siesta.
We spent many summers when I was little at my grandparents’ island house: a whitewashed specimen on the top of a hill on a little dot of an island in the middle of the Aegean sea. Sometimes I think we humans try to remember a childhood more idyllic than it really was – I am guilty, for sure. But my island home was everything and more. Quiet afternoons spent reading while the Real Greeks napped; walks home from the beach bathed in a fine white sand; climbing to my very favourite mill on my very favourite hill. Schinousa was a dusty, magical place.
Greeks eat their main meal at lunch time: in our family this fell after siesta at around three in the afternoon. Bellies grumbled from a day at the beach coupled with rest, wanting nourishment before the night (and real party) began. I’d quietly make my way to the kitchen before the rest of the house could wake. In two I would fold the napkins. I placed silverware – opposite to my North American upbringing – with the fork to each plate’s right. I poured bottomless jugs of wine into tiny thimbles that we’d refill through the meal.
My Yia-yia is an incredible cook. From her island oven would waft beautiful smells: revithosoupa, tyropites, yemista and other delicious things. But none so coveted (by me, at least!) as her gigantes. Her giants. Broad beans one inch across in a silky tomato sauce – thick and studded with carrots and onion and infused with nutmeg and allspice and maybe a cinnamon stick. Imagine the best baked beans you’ve ever had. These leave those beans in the island dust. Whether scalding your tongue straight from the tapsi or in cold spoonfuls from the fridge; they elevate beans to another level where beans don’t really belong.
I’m always amazed at the beautiful things island frugality produces. It doesn’t make sense that some stewed beans and tomatoes should be extraordinary. Just as, I suppose, it doesn’t make sense that island life – resplendent with quiet and sameness and constancy – should be extraordinary. It just is.
(makes one big tapsi – or pan)
Traditionally, these are spiced with dill and parsley – which is nice, just not the recipe I ate growing up. Mine are infused with the gentlest amount of warm spices: clove, allspice, cinnamon bark and nutmeg. It’s one of those funny recipes that’s equally suited to a hot island lunch as to a mid-winter’s dinner.
Cold leftovers are especially good spooned over toasty bread, sprinkled with parsley and taken in great bites over the sink.
1 pound dried gigantes (you can use elephant beans, lima beans or butter beans to equal success)
4 large carrots, sliced into rounds
2 medium onions, sliced
4 cloves garlic, whole
1 28-ounce jar crushed tomatoes
4 allspice berries
1 small piece cinnamon bark
few rasps of fresh nutmeg, or 1/4tsp ground
salt and pepper to taste
1/4c reserved bean liquid
Overnight, soak the rinsed beans in pure filtered water. You can leave them on the counter, just make sure they’re covered with about an inch of liquid – they’ll absorb most of it.
The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large saucepan, bring fresh water and beans to a boil and simmer to firm-tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/4c bean liquid. In a separate pan, heat olive oil and add onions, carrot and garlic, salting liberally. Cook about 10 minutes until softened but not browned.
In the largest pot of the two, combine beans, onion-carrot mixture, crushed tomatoes, bean liquid and spices. Simmer until combined, about 5 minutes – the mixture should be soupy but not runny. Taste for seasoning. Transfer to a casserole dish and bake uncovered, about one hour, until the top is crusty and the liquid evaporates to a thick sauce.
This is great warm from the oven, but even better brought up to room temperature the next day. Leftovers will keep for 5 days or so in the fridge.