Writing about my dad's hommus recipe the other day reminded me of another specialty dish of his. Beautiful, big white beans slowly baked in a tomato-based stew with carrots, onions, celery, bay leaves and thyme, served with scatterings of roughly chopped parsley. These flavours are about as Greek as they get and the aroma throughout the house when a combination like this is stewing in the oven just makes me want to lie down on the kitchen floor and levitate to Greece.
See? I was levitating when I took this photo.
Along with many other boat-loads of Greeks escaping the turmoil of Egypt in the mid-1950s, my dad Takis arrived in Australia with his new wife (my mum) Fifi in search for a better life.
Settling in Melbourne, Takis worked hard from day one, covering the gamut of job opportunities on offer in the lucky country at the time, from insurance and sales to electronics and food manufacturing.
But it was the food industry for which Takis would develop a passion, and the following three decades would provide him with the most satisfying years in food manufacturing, owning and running (to his childrens' delight!) his own ice cream factory.
Takis had a great respect for his factory workers, as did they for him. Most of his staff were Greeks and Italians of the 1960's wave of immigration to Australia. He knew how hard it was for people to leave their homeland and their family and friends behind to find work and start their life over in a new country. Takis gave them an opportunity and they gave him their loyalty, many of them remaining dedicated workers at the factory for more than 30 years.
It was this mutual respect that created such a strong relationship between employer and employee, along with a few perks like free tubs of ice cream to take home to their families, and free lunch every day at the factory for all the workers.
You may remember me talking about my dad's obsession with food experimentation. This obsession goes way back to the mid-70s when he developed his first ice cream brand, Swan's Ice Cream, available in vanilla, chocolate and Neapolitan. Various flavours of gelato were also added to the product list, as well as many Italian dessert ice creams like Cassata and Tartufo to cater for the growing number of Italian restaurants popping up in Melbourne at the time.
Takis had a purpose-built laboratory on the ground floor of the factory where he would spend days and nights developing flavours and recipes for his ice creams. I loved that room. All those colourful bottles and jars, tubes and packets, powders and creams – it was just like Willy Wonker's chocolate factory.
There was also a large, fully equipped industrial open-plan kitchen/dining area for Takis to further his experimentation. It was the ultimate, stainless steel kitchen wonderland and was also utilised by two of the employees whose job it was to prepare the free daily lunch for everyone at the factory.
Takis and the two Greek ladies, Voula and Katie, would spend a couple of hours each morning in the kitchen preparing large batches of food, usually consisting of a massive cauldron of soup, a huge tray of baked vegetables, another huge tray of some sort of pasta or rice-based dish, a gigantic bowl of Greek salad, and an enormous basket of fresh bread rolls.
Over the school holidays I worked at the factory for some extra cash and I too would join the rest of the workers in the lunch room to enjoy the beautiful array of food and the good company of all the wonderful people that worked there. Unlike many stark and cold workplace lunchrooms, the whole kitchen was buzzing with conversation, clanging cutlery, laughter and movement, and the sweet aroma of what ever just came out of the oven or off the stove top. It was a time to relax and chat with workmates, enjoy a fresh, home-cooked meal, and recharge for the rest of the day's work.
By far, my favourite lunchtime meal at the factory was the hearty Gigantes stew. I don't make Gigantes very often myself – it's another one of those dishes that I simply haven't been able to recreate the way my dad, Voula and Katie would to make it. I have my dad's recipe and I follow it to the letter, but you know, it's probably something as simple as using a different brand of olive oil that changes everything. This dish still tastes wonderful though.
Gigantes is a heart-warming stew, perfect for the cooler nights approaching with the Autumnal season here in Australia. Even with the arrival of Spring on the other hemisphere this stew would still be welcome as the evening frosts settle in.
Gigantes (Giant Bean Stew)Recipe by my dad, Takis
IngredientsFor boiling the beans
- 250g dried Gigantes* or Lima beans, soaked in water for at least 8 hours
- 1 large onion, peeled and cut in half
- 1 large carrot, cut in half
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
- 2 large carrots, sliced
- 375ml vegetable stock
- 1 cup of water
- 2 x 400g cans of chopped tomatoes
- 3 bay leaves
- 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
* Note: Traditionally, 'Gigantes' or 'Elephantes' beans are used to make this dish which, as the name suggests, are larger than Lima beans. These are grown in the northern regions of Greece and can be expensive and difficult to find here in Australia. If you can't find Gigantes beans, Lima beans make a great substitute.
- After soaking the beans overnight, drain and rinse then transfer to a large pot with the halved onion and carrot. Fill the pot with water, bring to the boil and allow to simmer for one hour.
- When beans are cooked, drain, discard onion and carrot and set aside.
- Meanwhile, in a large oven-proof casserole dish, fry the finely chopped onions and celery in olive oil until soft, around ten minutes.
- Add carrots to the onion and celery mixture and fry for another ten minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the cooked beans, vegetable stock, water, tomatoes, bay leaves and salt and pepper to taste, and bring to the boil.
- Transfer the casserole dish to a preheated oven at 150 degrees celsius and cook for one hour with the lid on. If your casserole dish doesn't have a lid, cover with foil.
- After one hour, remove dish from oven and give the stew a good stir, then place back in oven for another hour with the lid slightly askew (or the foil slightly loosened) to allow the steam to be released and the sauce to thicken.
- Keep checking the stew to make sure it doesn't dry out and add a little water if necessary.