A Fassoulia Odyssey
By Dara O’Brien
Creative Director, Lake Isle Press
For years I held onto a green bean recipe that a colleague gave to me. I saved that scrap of paper before I ever created recipe files, and should have moved it into one of them, but I didn’t. I saved it through multiple waves of moving, decluttering, and re-organizing. I saved it for so long, I was surprised that I couldn’t find it when I looked for it today.
I had jotted it down when I was in Greece. The magazine I was working for at the time had sent me on a press tour of the Greek mainland. We visited olive groves and olive oil processing plants and learned about their products. I have a vivid memory of visiting a big warehouse that was empty except for one long table along a wall where ten hair-netted women were seated. They were sorting and stuffing big loose piles of olives with what I think were garlic cloves. They reminded me of Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory, but without the conveyor belt. And in color.
Oh, and another thing about that trip. We ate. We ate a lot. We ate like royalty. They bussed us from coast to coast, put us up in lovely hotels and fed us all along the way. We feasted on fresh fish at a charming coastal village. We dined at an Athens Ouzeria where the small plates kept coming and I tried things I’d never eaten before, like beets and giant beans (please keep in mind I was always a picky eater), and loved them. We had stuffed peppers and tomatoes with Greek wine that was so good we all bought bottles and smuggled them home (This was pre-2001. You could do that then.)
So I was food-primed when one of my companions told me about this Greek green bean dish. I scribbled down the recipe and kept meaning to make it. When I came across a Stewed Green Beans, Tomatoes, and Garlic in Mayada Ajari’s cookbook, “The Bread and Salt Between Us” published by Lake Isle Press, I immediately thought of that bean recipe from years ago, and decided it was time to make it. Then I couldn’t find the recipe. Since I had Mayada’s recipe right in front of me, I made that instead.
As I recall, the recipe I lost was a lot like this one, which Syrians call fassoulia (or fasoulia) and Greeks call fasolia. (Mayada also has a recipe for a white bean fassoulia, which I’ll cover in a week or two). However you spell it, it’s a bean stew.
I know why a dish of tomatoey garlicky beans appealed to me so long ago, but I cannot tell you why it took me so long to make it. It’s so good. And it’s kind of foolproof. The only alterations I made were to dice the garlic cloves, rather than simply cut them in half. For some reason I am resistant to biting into a hunk of garlic. And I subbed canned diced tomatoes for fresh since I didn’t have any ripe ones.
I was tempted to keep the green beans whole, instead of French cutting them lengthwise as Mayada suggests. You can skip that step (I checked, and some other fassoulia recipes do), but I’m glad I went to the trouble. I love the texture of the thinner bean and the way it blends with the other ingredients.
Notwithstanding the hefty dose of garlic, the secret ingredient in this recipe is Cayenne. That little touch of fire is perfect.
I served my fassoulia with Mayada’s Rice Pilaf with Vermicelli. The fluffy, earthy rice pairs beautifully with the hot, garlicky beans.
My trip to Greece did more than make me a convert to Greek olive oil (I’ve gone out of my way to buy it ever since). It opened my eyes — and tastebuds — to a cuisine I’d never tried. Making this fassoulia was a happy reminder of that discovery. There’s a wide world of food out there and I’ll continue to explore it, one dish at a time.
Stewed Green Beans, Tomatoes, and Garlic
1½ pounds green beans, trimmed
½ cup vegetable oil
5 cloves garlic, smashed into a paste with 1 teaspoon salt
8 cloves garlic, halved crosswise
1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1½ pounds tomatoes, cut into medium cubes
1 teaspoon salt
Serve with Rice Pilaf with Vermicelli
1. Cut the green beans in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 1½-inch pieces. Heat the oil in a large heavy pot on medium-high. Add the garlic paste and cook for 30 to 60 seconds, until it softens but doesn’t brown. Add the green beans, garlic clove halves, and cayenne. Stir to thoroughly coat everything in the oil and garlic paste. Add ½ cup water and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, until the beans are bright green. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover again, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes more, until the beans begin to soften.
2. Place the tomatoes on top of the green beans; do not stir. Sprinkle with the salt. Cover again and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until the green beans are tender.
3. Stir the tomatoes into the beans. Cover and cook for 20 minutes, until the tomatoes are partially broken down. Serve immediately.
Recipe from “The Bread and Salt Between Us” by Mayada Anjari with Jennifer Sit, Lake Isle Press, 2018
Originally published at https://www.lakeislepress.com on October 15, 2020.