Gigantes (meaning giants) is a classic butter bean appetiser or meze, found all over Greece. There are several variations of the recipe and seeing as gigantes is one of our favourite dishes, we have tried most of them! It’s a dish just as enjoyable in winter as in summer and is easy to make as a starter when having friends around, or as a light lunch or supper on its own. In Greece the best butter (or lima) beans are commonly agreed to be those grown around Lake Prespes in the north of the country, where the borders of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania meet Greece.
This is one of the biggest natural bird sanctuaries in Europe and an area of outstanding natural beauty where wildlife and plants rarely seen in Europe can still be found. Sophie and I made a road trip up to the area a couple of summers ago and were blown away by the scenery!
We had been told that the best gigantes could be found in a small taverna in a tiny fishing hamlet at the furthest point of the lake, on the edge of a juniper forest. We arrived there on a late August afternoon. On a narrow jetty, a fisherman was tinkering with his motorboat. He offered to take us on a tour of the lake there and then. It was an unforgettably magical ride! The late golden afternoon sun slanted across the water, pelicans swooped into the water beside us as we chugged past tiny monasteries clinging to the cliff sides. The fisherman told us that bears often came down to the lakeside at twilight to have a drink, but alas, much to our disappointment, we didn’t see any that afternoon (the next day made up for it when we saw a couple of young bears at a nearby bear sanctuary)!
By the time we finally docked back at the jetty, the sun was just a thin sliver of light over the hills and it was rapidly getting dark. In the north of Greece, even in high summer, a chill can fill the air once darkness falls, so we went straight to the taverna where we were quickly served steaming hot bowls of gigantes. The taverna’s reputation for great gigantes was well-deserved. We could taste the earthy goodness of the butter beans, the sweetness of the tomato and carrot and the silky richness of the olive oil. Perfection!
Our recipe respects the traditional Prespes lake version but adds two new dimension in taste plus a tip on texture:
The butter beans and carrots lend sweetness to this dish and we feel that a touch of fiery spice provided by chilli flakes and fruity acidity provided by grapefruit juice give the dish a new balance that elevates it gastronomically. Regarding texture we love our gigantes to be browned on the edges, almost to the point of being burnt, giving a satisfying crispiness but with the sauce below still rich and unctuous.
Once the butter beans are soaked for 8 hours, gigantes takes just half an hour to prepare, then it needs about 2 and a half hours total cooking. This is a cheap and easy dish with lots of ingredients. If served as a meze or starter this would serve 4 people comfortably. It can be eaten the following day, but it is ideal when eaten half an hour after coming out of the oven. You can have this dish in its purely vegetarian version or add sliced sausage into the mixture. It’s great both ways!
Butter beans are a good source of iron, zinc and magnesium, which are also nutrients found in poultry, meat and seafood — another reason the beans are considered a protein food. A 1/2-cup serving of butter beans meets 10 percent of the daily value for iron and zinc and 15 percent of the daily value for magnesium.
Ingredients (for 4 people as a starter- 1 platter)
250 g butter (lima) beans (dried, not tinned)
1 carrot, sliced
½ chilli pepper, finely chopped
1 onion, cut into thick slices
1 stick of celery, sliced (with the leaves if it has)
350 g carton/tin chopped tomatoes
2 tbsp of finely chopped flat leaf parsley
75 ml extra virgin olive oil
1 pink grapefruit, juiced
100 ml of water from the boiling of butter beans approximately (see instructions)
1 tbl. sweet smoked paprika
½ tsp. chilli flakes or few drops tabasco sauce, depending on your taste (optional)
Salt and pepper
1 salami sausage (eg. chorizo) not ready sliced (optional)
1. Soak the beans in enough fresh water in a bowl to cover them at least by 3-4 cm and leave there for 8 hours at least.
2. Cut the vegetables as per instructions. Squeeze the grapefruit.
3. Using the water that you soaked the butter beans put them in a saucepan, add more water to cover them by 3 cm. and boil for 40 minutes on a medium heat hob (do not add salt). Leave in the saucepan with the remaining water.
4. Preheat the oven to 180ºC with fan.
5. Choose either an ovenware dish or a roasting pan. Tip in all the ingredients in and stir. Top up with enough water from the boiled butter beans so as to cover the ingredients. Add salt and pepper and put the dish in the oven on the middle shelf. B
6. Bake (180ºC with fan) for 1:15′ until most of the liquid has been absorbed, but not so much as to become dry, stirring a couple of times between and adding water if it seems necessary. Finish off the dish by turning up the grill setting on the oven to high for 5-10 minutes (depending on the oven) on the higher shelf allowing the dish to lightly brown. Be careful though! The sauce should not be allowed to over-brown or dry out too much.
Remove the beans from the oven and leave to rest for at least 15-20 minutes (depending on the season) to allow the flavours to settle and to let it cool slightly before serving.