Adding ginger, cinnamon and cloves to certain cookie doughs or cake batter can create culinary magic, as anyone who has tasted a good gingersnap knows. The combination can also do good things for savory dishes, as a simple bean and cheese dish from Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean illustrates. Wolfert’s book, one of a handful of volumes she has written about cooking near the Mediterranean, was a revelation for me, showing me the food of parts of the Mediterranean that don’t get much attention: Syria, Georgia, Macedonia, southeastern Turkey, to name a few. Like other books by Wolfert, it is much more than a collection of recipes — it is an exploration of culinary culture.
One of my favorite recipes in the book comes from Georgia, a place where they know how to make beans interesting with additions like walnuts, leeks and coriander; raisins, honey and almonds; or eggs and butter, to name a few. Wolfert writes that “Georgians know more about blending spices and herbs than any other eastern Mediterranean people, and nowhere do they show off their knowledge to more glorious proof than with a pot of small red beans.” And the recipe below that I have adapted from the book is a great example of Georgian skill. Although it appears to be simple — red beans and sliced cheese — it gives several layers of flavors in earthy beans, sweet and sharp spices, pungent feta cheese, and refreshing (or soapy) cilantro.
Red Beans, Spices, Pomegranate and Cheese
Adapted from The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean by Paula Wolfert
1 cup uncooked small red beans or 2 cups cooked beans
2 T. mild vegetable oil
1 cup chopped onion
1/2 t. ground dry ginger
1/4 t. ground cinnamon
1/4 t. ground cloves
1/2 t. salt, plus more to taste
Cayenne pepper to taste
1-2 T. pomegranate juice or pomegranate molasses
4 T. chopped cilantro
1/4 lb. sliced feta cheese
If using uncooked beans, cook the beans until tender using your favorite technique (I like Rancho Gordo’s bean cooking method), then drain and save the cooking liquid (to be used later in the recipe). If using canned beans, drain and rinse them.
Heat a skillet over medium-low heat, then cook the onion in the oil, covered, stirring every few minutes. When the onion is tender (5 minutes or so), add the cooked beans. Cook uncovered for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, then mix in the spices, salt, and any reserved liquid (if using canned beans, add about 1/2 cup of water). Cook until the pan is almost dry, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and mix in the pomegranate juice or molasses and half of the chopped cilantro.
Ideally, the beans should go into the refrigerator to mellow for about 8 hours and brought back to room temperature before serving, but if you can’t wait, you can eat them warm or after they have cooled to room temperature. If you are going to refrigerate the beans before serving, put them in a glass storage bowl. If serving immediately or soon, transfer the beans to a serving bowl.
Serve topped with the remaining chopped cilantro and the slices of feta cheese.
Map of Georgia from the CIA World Factbook, photo of spices by the author.