Friday, October 23, 2009

FASSOLATHA (aka BEAN SOUP)



Fassolatha is the Greek word for bean soup, and it's a meal that is simple, inexpensive, healthy, and delicious. Very nutritious, beans contain almost no fat, they are high in protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and they are also a great source of calcium, potassium, B vitamins, and iron. They have played an integral part in the development of human civilization because they were one of the first crops to be cultivated by humans. Fassolatha is a staple in Greek cuisine. I would call it Greek soul food. Stories of hard times abound in Greece, times when folk would have fassolatha to eat and nothing else. During the war years for example, people would stow away a sack or two of beans for soup, to help them make it through the winter. My older relatives would often recount stories of their experience during the brutal nazi occupation of Greece, and the ensuing civil war between conservative and communist factions. They would smile sardonically when the topic involved food supply, and they would tell me how they staved off famine by eating a steady diet of fassolatha.
My father has said that having had beans to eat during the war was like having gold. Of course, during those times the soup was made with plain water, no oil, since there was no oil available. My mother told me that she didn't see a single olive for all five years of the nazi occupation, which I find to be an unsettling fact for a nation that produces high amounts of both olives and olive oil. Regrettably, most everything produced by Greeks was appropriated by the nazis. Anyway, the soup probably did not have too many vegetables in it either, but nevertheless...it kept the Greek population going and resisting. There was thyme and oregano growing wild on the hillsides, and the nazis were not interested in those. So the Greeks would pick them, and they would pick whatever other greens grew wild, and along with the beans they would have a war-time feast. Those difficult times are over now.
Unfortunately, famine still exists in the world, and there are people (even in the good old USA), who do not have the means to supply food for their family. This is a horrible, painful inequity. So I always have a certain amount of reverence and love in my heart when I make this soup. It is Greek soul food, and much like American soul food, it has been on the table in good times and in bad, in times of plenty and in times of want.

Ingredients

1/4 olive oil
1 Spanish onion chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
3 ribs of celery, leaves included, chopped
4 carrots, chopped 2 potatoes, peeled and diced into small pieces
3 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon of oregano
1 - 40 oz & 1 - 15 oz can of Northern Beans *or, instead of canned, 1 pound dried beans which have been rinsed, soaked overnight, and drained 5 cups water few dashes of soy sauce 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Directions
In a soup pot heat the olive oil and add the onions, garlic and celery, and saute until onions are translucent. Add the tomatoes and stir for about two minutes.

Add the carrots, potatoes, salt & pepper, thyme and oregano. Carefully fold in the beans.

Add water and soy sauce and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 1 hour. If you will be using the dried beans you will need to cook them longer: cook until the beans are soft, about one and a half hour. It was my mother's idea to start using caned beans in the soup. It is so much faster and convenient, plus she says, "if they all ready soften them for us, why should I bother soaking them overnight?" However, what prompted her to start experimenting with canned, was that the dried beans in the US do not have a flavor or substance similar to those in Greece. Somehow, the canned ones fit the bill perfectly.


About 10 minutes before turning off the heat add the parsley.
I decided to accompany this with a salad, and instead of bread I served empanadas stuffed with feta and ricotta cheeses.



EMPANADAS





To make these empanadas you will need a package of ready made empanada disks. They are made by "Goya" foods and can be found in your grocer's freezer. Defrost them according to package instructions. For the stuffing you will need approximately one cup of cheese. Crumble up some feta and mix it with ricotta cheese. Make sure that you use more feta than ricotta. Add some shredded cheddar cheese and season with black pepper and parsley. Don't use too much cheddar. The exact quantities to use are up to you, but the whole filling should add up to one cup. There are ten empanada disks per package. Fill the bottom half of each with some of the cheese stuffing. How much is again up to you. You may want them really cheesy or not. Wet the circumference of the disk with a bit of water. Fold the top part of the empanada over and join it with the bottom part, creating a half moon shape. The water you have used will make the two layers of dough adhere to themselves. With a fork create decorative edging. Brush the tops with some canola oil and sprinkle some Parmesan cheese on them. Oil a pan with canola oil and place the empanadas on it. Bake them in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until the dough has developed a crust. These are not your traditional empanadas, but the combination of cheeses, and the fact that they are baked and not fried makes them irresistible. They are reminiscent of a Greek tyropita.


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