A Bag of Beans

Beans are THE traditional Bulgarian dish. The legume is considered to have come to Bulgaria in the 15th century, but has since become so deeply engrained in the Bulgarian way of life that it is impossible to find a person who does not love beans; it is unimaginable to come across a traditional Bulgarian eating place without beans on the menu; it is unthinkable to find a Bulgarian woman unable to cook a nice pot of beans and, last but not least, it is inconceivable to think of the father’s fireplace metaphor without a clay pot of beans simmering on its embers.

Christmas Vigil without beans…no way! Even people who do not observe the tradition of having an uneven number of vegan dishes on Christmas Vigil, cook beans – only beans and nothing else.

Beans are a frugal dish to prepare as it requires few ingredients and reheats well. Thick bean stew with white cheese and a hearty bread is totally a comfort food for Bulgarians. The beans themselves are not a capricious staple to have in the pantry. Also, the hotness and redness of the bean dish speak volumes of the cook’s temperament.

Everyone has their own way to make beans, but they generally come in three forms in Bulgaria:

  • A thick bean stew cooked on the stove (possibly baked in the oven)
  • Oven-baked beans (possibly cooked on the stove), stuffed into dry red peppers, which I fondly call chushkas.
  • A great bean salad (not red), consisting of boiled or canned navy beans with spices, oil and vinegar.

So in the order of mentioning…:

Bean Stew/Soup

Take about 250-300 g of beans and soak overnight in cold water. If you don’t have the time, wash them, put in the pressure cooker without the lid, cover with cold water and boil them for about 15 min. Then throw the water away, fill with more water, to about half of the pot, close the lid and wait till it starts hissing. When it starts, reduce the fire and let it hiss for about 10-15 minutes. Careful with the hissing, though, better less time than more, as it is very disappointing to open the pressure cooker lid after all the hissing is over, and find a shapeless mass of beans inside…

The smaller the beans are, the faster they will cook, and the more you have boiled/soaked them beforehand, the faster they will cook too. Better to have them a bit undercooked in the pressure cooker. You can always simmer them to readiness on the stove.

  • Dice 1-2 onions and garlic to taste.
  • Optionally, also dice a red or green pepper and a carrot
  • Have ready 1-2 table spoonfuls of flour (optional)
  • Tomato paste or fresh peeled tomatoes or diced canned tomatoes to taste, if you ask me, the redder the better. I generally put between one half and an entire medium-sized can.
  • Red pepper (sweet and/or chilli), black pepper, chubritsa, spearmint, fenugreek (or all of that together as Sharena sol)
  • Fresh parsley

To prepare:

Heat sunflower oil in a large pot on the stove. Sizzle onion and garlic until soft. If you have peppers and carrots, put them in too. You may pour a bit of the beans liquid so as to boil rather than fry them.

Put the red pepper and flour, quickly mix and pour some more liquid so as to prevent the red pepper from burning. Then add the tomato paste and more of the beans liquid. Reduce the fire, add salt and spices and let it simmer for say 10 minutes, or until the onions (peppers and carrots) are not crunchy anymore.

Add the beans from the pressure cooker and as much of the liquid as you want, cover the pot and let it simmer. Remember to stir occasionally so as to prevent the beans from sticking to the pot’s bottom. After you turn the fire off, add the fresh parsley. You may also add it after the beans have cooled down a bit. This will keep the leaves green, fresh and fragrant.

Baked Beans, also stuffed in dry red chushkas

You may greatly reduce the liquid in the final dish and give it a final bake in the oven, in which case you will not get beans stew but beans plakiya, or плакия.

This thick bean mixture, without peppers or carrots though, can also go into dry red chushkas for a modest but a really festive Christmas Vigil dish. (Put thick bean mixture into dry chushkas which have been soaked in cold water for a while so as to soften, place in an oiled dish, arrange any excess beans around the chushkas and bake. Sprinkle with fresh parsley when ready.)

Bean Salad

Take about two medium-sized cans of white beans, remove from the liquid but don’t wash, so as to have a bit of the liquid sticking to the beans. You may of course boil your own beans, but for the salad I favour canned, because of that liquid (it should derive from the beans themselves only and not be thickened with modified corn starch or sugar!). Moreover, if you boil your beans to make the salad, you may overboil them and end up with exploded beans, which will not look nice on the plate.

So pour you beans in a bowl, large enough for mixing. Add diced onion – white only, or purple, or mixed with 1-2 stalks of young green onion, for the sake of colour contrast. It is highly recommended to dice the onions (not the green one!) in a separate bowl, add salt to taste and rub the onions with the salt between your fingers. The ideas is for the onions to release some of their liquid and not be so raw in the salad. (That’s a trick we often use when adding fresh onions or garlic, like in tarator).

After rubbing salt and onions together, add them to the beans in the bowl, together with the released juice. Also add to the bowl, to taste: chubritsa, ground black pepper, spearmint, oregano and fresh parsley (I mean really fresh, not from the freezer!) Mix that. Your beans should by not look fairly darkened by all the spices. Taste and fix for saltiness. Add sunflower oil and vinegar (wine, apple or some posh variety like organic morello, only not Italian-style very dark balsamic vinegar). Mix and taste, fix anything that needs fixing.

Cover and let it remain in the fridge for the tastes to mix. This salad may very successfully be prepared on the day before you plan to eat it or offer it to your guests, it will lose nothing of its taste because of the waiting, just the opposite.

The salad is great on its own for Lent, and is an excellent side dish to chops, sausages, meatballs or kebapcheta. A glass of rakia with this salad – the perfect entrée to more serious Bulgarian eating, if you are up to that! Наздраве! (meaning Cheers, with stress on the second A).

To Serve

The cooked beans pair excellently with heavy crusty bread and red wine or a chilli pepper. Also some kind of a green salad, or just a cucumber, no tomatoes. They are also delicious cold.

If you feel like kneading bread, you may put some chubritsa or fenugreek in the dough and you’ll have the perfect match. You may also not have spices in the dough but, before putting the shaped loaf to bake, you can oil the crust, smear thinned tomato paste on top and sprinkle sharena salt on the top.

Another perfect thing for beans is Bulgarian white cheese, which may be served separately or crumbled into the plate/bowl of served beans. Another option is a sausage, which may either be put separately, served on the same plate, or cooked together with the beans in the pot, in which case it is added to the tomato sauce together with the beans themselves. Meatballs is still another great side dish for beans…or vice versa, depending on where your focus is! Beans, sans cheese or meat, is a great and nutritious vegan dish for Lent.

Now smile, have a glass of rakia or red wine and enjoy!