It really was Greek to me - giant beans in tomato sauce, a classic Greek dish known as gigandes plaki. Like other beans, these are jam-packed with low-fat, high-protein fiber and other good-for-you nutrition, at a low cost. With March being National Nutrition Month, what better time to pay homage to legumes and learn more about these beans.
I first had these huge buttery beans on a mezze platter at a favorite Greek restaurant more than 20 years ago. Once I tasted them, I was on a hunt for more. However, they were not easy to track down. I prowled the aisles of every ethnic grocery store I spotted, in search of either the dried beans or canned tins of them. I finally gave up.
Then magically, at a theater dinner at the Fine Arts Center last year, then-executive chef Dylan Montoya served up a vegetarian entrée starring those velvety beans. When I inquired about the brand, he told me it was Goya from their food service supplier.
I never got around to searching for them. But my interest in finding the beans fired up again at the Second Sunday Jazz Affair in February, where lo and behold, one of the steamers on the Greek buffet was devoted to a pan of tomato sauce with the giant beans floating in it.
When I pointed to them, Costas Rombocos, who was standing behind the serving line, nodded in a knowing way. Maybe, just maybe, I had finally stumbled onto a source for the treasured beans.
When I inquired, he said he bought them at an international market in Denver.
I got the brand name - Palirria - and started the hunt again online and found the company's website. Bingo! I ordered a case of 12 (10-ounce) cans for $3 each (with free shipping), which arrived within the week.
Still, I wondered if there wasn't somewhere I could find Greek beans locally. Since I frequently drive past the Briar Mart market and cafe, I decided to stop in and see if they carried the beans. Why, yes, they did! There I found the Zergut brand of giant beans in tomato sauce in 19-ounce jars for $4.99 each. Although they are a product of Bulgaria, they are every bit as good as their Greek cousins.
Then another amazing thing happened. I was reading Trader Joe's February Fearless Flyer, and one of the featured items was, yes, giant baked beans in tomato sauce, which they sell for $1.99 per 9.6-ounce can. So I picked up a can there, too.
All three versions of the giant beans are very similar in flavor, and I'd be happy with any of them. They'd make a warm, delicious side dish with braised lamb, which is how they were served on Rombocos' Greek buffet. When served hot, the tomato sauce tastes like the best-ever tomato soup. Just open a can at room temperature and be prepared to be amazed. The lightly lemon-dill flavors in the tomato sauce shine. Use them on a mezze platter with stuffed grape leaves and fresh feta (both also available at Briar Mart). Add some warm pita bread and red wine, and you are set for a healthy appetizer or even a complete meal.