Winter Is Coming, Bring in the Beans

Beans originally came from the Americas a long time ago, but they are deeply rooted in our local culinary tradition and we tend to see them as „our own“.

Available all year round canned or dried, with the highlight in late summer when fresh young beans are in season, somehow we particularly like to embrace the beans in cold autumn and winter days. There's just something warm and comforting in a bowl of beans. Once known as „the poor man's meat“, beans are not being looked down upon anymore – they are rich in proteins, nutritious and universally adaptable to a variety of dishes and national cuisines. In Zagreb, especially in the cold season, we put them in a pot, and turn them into a simple and filling stew.

“Bean stew is not meant to impress you with its looks, but to fill you up good.” Image credit: Pivnica i pivovara Mlinarica FB

Bean stew is definitely the most popular bean dish around. Technically, it's called grah varivo, but if you say just „I've had beans for lunch“, everybody will automatically picture a bowl of bean stew. But when we are talking about bean stew, it actually means a lot of things although the concept is the same – it's warm and thick, you eat it with a spoon and beans are the main ingredient. Buying canned beans is your last resort. Green markets are full of favourite local cultivars like zelenček, trešnjevac, tetovac or puter, corresponding to different kinds of cranberry beans and kidney beans. The basic bean stew includes a bit of root vegetables and some kind of dried and smoked meat (bacon, ribs, ham hock, sausages). Trust me, you really have to look hard to find a vegetarian, let alone vegan version. Go to any decent traditional lunchtime eatery in Zagreb, like Mlinarica or Purger, and classic bean stew will be on the menu literally every day.

“Thick or less thick, depending on the roux, always flavoured with dried meats.” Image credit: Domagoj Jakopović Ribafish

When we are speaking about winter, enter fermented veggies like cabbage and turnip. Classic winter bean stews use almost none fresh vegetables (except onion and occasionally some carrot), but abound in sauerkraut or sour turnip. This rich and healthy hotpot is known to bring the dead back to life and cure hangover. Grandmas usually make a giant pot and you can just re-heat it and eat it for days to come. If it's cold enough, you don't even have to keep it in the fridge – it's not that sauerkraut can get any sourer – we used to keep those huge pots out on the balcony overnight. Same as people are fundamentally divided into the Beatles or the Stones fans, so the folks of Zagreb are either zelje (sauerkraut) or repa (turnip) type when it comes to bean stew.

Ričet, bean and barley stew, perfect for that drab period between autumn and winter.” Image credit: Ozren Kanceljak

Another popular winter bean-based stew is called ričet. Ričet is the local word, coming from Hungarian and German, and meaning barley. This tasty meal combining legumes and grains (plus root vegetables and dried meat, not to forget) is guaranteed to fill you up properly and keep you going for a long time. That's the whole point of bean one-pots – they serve as a whole meal for the family, on its own, nothing else needed. This is also why they are best when prepared on a large scale, in pots big enough to feed an army. No wonder you see it served at big outdoor gatherings like the Labour Day celebration, or in Croatian mountain huts on weekends, when hundreds of hikers can pop in all at once. The making of bean stew is not that complicated, but involves some hidden tricks and experience, plus a lot of time for simmering, which is not something you would repeat every day, especially with a lot of hungry mouths to feed.

“As it gets colder, bean stew likes the company of sauerkraut.” Image credit: Taste of Croatia

Header image credit: Taste of Croatia

Author: Taste of Croatia, Morana Zibar