Friday is abstinence day for meat-eating Orthodox Christians, which means that vegetarian dishes in the otherwise carnivorous Balkans do get an airing at least once a week. One of these dishes is tavce gravce, Macedonia’s national plate, nuances of which pervade all of the former Yugoslav countries under different names, including pasulj, prebranac and grah.
Put simply, tavce gravce is baked beans with the twist of slightly spicy peppers, onions, fresh tomatoes and the option of a very un-Orthodox addition of smoked meats. Pork (pancetta or smoked ribs) is a favorite addition, so in the name of pushing flavor as far as it will go, we’ve opted to dunk a little chorizo in our stew and we don’t think we’ll be regretting that decision.
A bean stew like this is a distinctly Balkan dish that can be found as far afield from Skopje as Croatia and the Greek islands. Macedonia, like the rest of the region, was under Ottoman rule for around 500 years, and the cultural crossover that occurred during that time, between the Turks and their conquered territories, as well as between the various Balkan countries themselves, created a regional cuisine that features echoes of certain foods from Istanbul to Belgrade and from Skopje to Thessaloniki and Tirana.
Tavce gravce literally means ‘beans cooked in a pan’, the ‘pan’ part coming from the Turkish word, ‘tava’. The name harks back to the legacy of food preparation in the area that revolved around open flames, with grilled meats yoking the tradition of social cook-ups – cuts of pork grilling over open coals, and stews bubbling for hours, days in clay pots and dutch ovens.
We can only imagine that this bean crock started life in a pan over an open fire and was refined into a baked clay pot as the advantages of the latter method became clear, and clay pots were as numerous as the heads of Briareus.
The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Macedonian Clay Pots
It’s no coincidence that Macedonia’s national dish is stewed in ceramics since clay pots have traditionally been one of the country’s most ubiquitous products. Veles, town in the center of the country, and Vranestica to the west, were historically significant hubs for clay pot production. The tradition flourished until the 1980s when the opening of a railroad brought with it trade in manufactured kitchen goods that disrupted the ceramics business in the area.
However, there has been a resurgence in recent times, when, after being laid off from factories that were disenfranchised by the Balkan upheavals at the end of the nineties, many former ceramic artisans have returned to their family’s trade in order to eke out a living. It means that traditional earthenware is making a comeback, though the threat of cheaply-produced Chinese alternatives still looms over the potters’ wheels.
About the Recipe
Any Macedonian will tell you that the secret to a good tavce gravce is in the beans. In Macedonia, premium white beans for the dish are sourced from the northwestern town of Tetovo, but they can be replaced with canellini beans, great northern beans, or even butter beans.
As we already mentioned, you can make your tavce gravce with or without meat. We have decided to go with some smoky, slightly spicy chorizo for our take on the dish, but for sure the beans in this dish can fend for themselves.
Prepare the Ingredients
Think about starting work on your tavce gravce a couple of days in advance, since the best and most authentic way to cook it is slowly on the day before you actually want to serve it, to give the flavors a chance to really come into their own.
Begin the day before you plan to cook by soaking the beans overnight in a bowl of water. Do not add salt to the water – now, or when cooking – since this will cause the outer shell of the beans to toughen, resulting in a longer tenderizing time. Then, when you’re ready to go, get all of your ingredients ready and chopped. Take care to dice the peppers especially small, as you’ll want them to virtually disappear and melt into the sauce later on.
Put the beans to boil in a pot of water along with the onions, pepper, garlic and cherry tomato halves. This could take anywhere from 2-3 hours depending on the age of the beans. This step can also be done in a pressure cooker, taking around 1-1.5 hours. Take care that the beans do not overcook and become too soft, as you want them to retain their shape for the dish.
Heat a little oil in a large, deep frying pan and add the sliced chorizo. Stir the meat chunks to render off the fat.
Stir in the cooked beans as well as all the liquid in the pot.Add the dried mint and the chopped parsley. Put in a little salt at this point if you think it’s necessary and keep cooking the dish until it comes back to a boil. Once the stew has simmered a while, you can transfer it into a ceramic dish. Bake in the oven at 350ºF for about an hour. Cook the dish uncovered, so as to nicely brown the top.If you have the self-restraint and willpower, leave your tavce gravce to cool off before serving. Better still, leave it overnight, or just be sure to leave a little to enjoy the next day. You’ll see how much the flavor intensifies overnight.
The beans are best served with a side salad and lots of thick crusty bread. When the beans are cold, you can even experiment making a kind of bruschetta by layering them on top of the bread and adding lots of good, high-quality olive oil.
Our Take on the Recipe
We can honestly say that this is the best beans and pork recipe we’ve ever tasted, and it’s a must-try for anyone who loves a baked pork and bean dish. It’s really flavorful and comforting, and tasted great the next day too.
Mostly following the traditional method from our source recipe, we decided to switch out the tomato sauce for fresh tomatoes, and to take our cue from this alternative source to add meat to the mix. We were able to skip the boiling stage of the preparation – which tenderizes meats like ribs or pancetta – and put the chorizo straight into the dish via the frying pan, since chorizo’s natural softness lends itself to immediate cooking in this way.
In making the dish another time, we think we might experiment with spices more to see what kind of variation we could get on the flavor. We’d think of playing with the likes of berbere, cumin or garam for example, to see if they might give this dish new character (though, certainly less traditional).
Macedonian Tavce Gravce
- 1 lb cannellini beans, dry
- 2 onions, chopped
- 7 oz cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 red and 1 green finger peppers, finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
- 14 oz chorizo, sliced into about 1" pieces
- 1 tbsp paprika
- 1-2 tablespoons flour
- 1 tbsp dried mint
- 1 tbsp parsley
- Olive oil
- Handful of parsley, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
Prepare the beans
- Soak beans in water overnight.
- Boil the beans with onions, peppers, tomatoes and garlic until tender. This could take anywhere from 2-3 hours depending on the age of the beans. This step can also be done in a pressure cooker, taking around 1-1.5 hours.
Prepare the sauce
- Heat a little olive oil (1 tbsp) in a large and deep saute pan or cooking pot.
- Once hot, add sliced chorizo and stir to render off the fat.
- Add paprika and flour, and stir vigorously to form a roux.
Combine the beans with the sauce
- Stir in the boiled beans including the liquid and aromatics.
- Stir in dried mint and chopped parsley.
- Season with salt to taste.
Bake the tavce gravce
- Transfer everything to a baking dish.
- Bake uncovered for an hour at 350F or 180C.
- Allow to cool, at least for an hour or if you can wait until the next day, even better.
- Serve in the ceramic dish in which it was baked with a side salad and crusty bread.