Winter is a period marked by a down-shifting of gears—when I cocoon myself at home, breathe new life into my Netflix subscription and library membership, and fully embrace dining in as the new dining out (especially if Alison Roman has anything to do with it). As the dark, cold months slowly trudge forward, I find myself preparing food that deeply nourishes and satisfies. After all, my body is working hard to keep warm, to fight whatever new bug is going around, and, in the case of this past week, to heal and repair itself after my recent hand surgery. I need and want to do my body right. Lentil stews have been on heavy rotation these past few month, as have roasted root veggies, squash, and yes, even roasted kale (the oven heat breaks down and softens what otherwise can be a tough and fibrous green).
Hearty, heart and gut-healthy, effortless, and interesting enough to keep me coming back for more—another dish that effortlessly fits the bill for my cold-weather diet is Georgian lobio. The Georgian term for bean, lobio also designates the array of dishes made with the country's legume of choice: red kidney beans. This particular version, redolent of cilantro, garlic, blue fenugreek, and coriander, not only encapsulates the earthy, spicy, and rustic flavors of the cuisine, but also the traditional Georgian table.
The bean stew is traditionally served in little clay pots with a mchadi, or corncake, for a lid. Heaps of fresh tarragon, basil, and other herbs will be brought out, as well as pungent stalks of green onions, bright pink radish orbs, and slabs of fresh, salty cheese. In the wintertime, pickled or fermented vegetables are common. A little bite here, a little taste there, all of it eaten together, preferably by hand. I find so much satisfaction in this rustic approach and perhaps explains why I'll take any excuse to take a picnic!
Unfortunately, outdoor picnics are out of the question with the below-freezing temperatures here in Rhode Island, but at least I can treat myself to one indoors—where this lobio will be making a fine appearance.
P.S. On a recent trip to Charlottesville, I sat down with Jenée Libby to catch up for her Edacious - Food Talk for Gluttons podcast. We talked about life after upending trauma, this blog and burgeoning writing career, Georgian wine and khachapuri, the best mussels in Richmond, and so much more. So, head over there and take a listen! Then lose yourself in the rest of her wonderful (at times hilarious, other times serious) interviews with some of the best food folk around.
LOBIO – Herbed Kidney Bean Stew
Serves 4 to 6 people
Besides soaking overnight and cooking the beans, this vegetarian-friendly dish couldn't be easier to prepare. Herbed and spicy, the bean stew makes for a hearty main dish or filling side. It can be served hot, room temperature, or even cold, as my mother likes it, and will last for up to 5 days. In a pinch, we have also prepared lobio with canned beans—to fabulous results. In this case, use 4 cans of the best-quality beans you can find. Another note, don’t be deterred if you can’t find blue fenugreek and summer savory. We have often made the dish without the two and we still lick our bowls clean!
1 pound dried red kidney beans, rinsed and soaked overnight
2 dried bay leaves or 1 fresh
Kosher salt, to taste
3 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 heaping teaspoon coriander
1 heaping teaspoon blue fenugreek* (utskho suneli), optional
1 heaping teaspoon dried summer savory **(kondari), or dried thyme, optional
¼- ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 ½ tablespoon tomato paste
1 ½ cup finely chopped cilantro
½ cup finely chopped parsley
5 large cloves, minced or pressed
salty, fresh cheese like a feta or brindza, for serving
fresh herbs, such as tarragon and basil, for serving
green onions and radishes, for serving
mchadi (recipe follows) or hearty bread, for serving
Drain and rinse the soaked beans, transfer to a large heavy-bottomed pot, and cover with at least two-inches of water. Add bay leaves and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook until beans are very tender, about 1 to 2 hours. Around the 1-hour mark, start tasting for doneness. When beans are tender but still too firm to enjoy eating, add the salt. Adding the salt too early can keep the beans from becoming tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged and stir occasionally.
Meanwhile, in a medium-sized skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, a pinch of salt, and cook until translucent and lightly golden, about 8 minutes. Stir in coriander, blue fenugreek and savory if using, and red pepper flakes. Cook for another minute. Add tomato paste, a bit of warm water to help loosen it up, and stir to combine. Cook for a few more minutes.
Keeping the heat on low, once the beans are done, mash the beans with a potato masher (or the back of a wooden spoon) just enough to crush half the beans, and leaving the rest intact. Stir in the onion mixture and allow to cook for 5 to 7 minutes. If you see that the beans are very thick, add water to thin it out—you want an almost soup-like consistency (they’ll thicken once cooled anyways). Add fresh herbs and garlic, stir, and cook for another minute or two. Remove from heat and season to taste.
Serve with mchadi or good hearty bread and accompaniments.
Note*: This blue variety is aromatic and spicy, but milder and less pungent than regular fenugreek. Look for it in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores or buy it here or here.
Note**: If your local grocery store doesn’t carry it, find it online here. Dried thyme makes a fine substitute.
Makes 6 large or 12 small corncakes
Similar in concept to American cornbread, mchadi are little fried corncakes that are dry, unsweetened and crumbly—a blank canvas for Georgia’s distinct, intricately seasoned dishes and the perfect vehicle to sop up sauces and stews like lobio. For the right texture, you need stone-ground cornmeal, but make sure its finely ground. If yours is medium or course pulse it in a food processor a few times.
2 ⅓ cups stone-ground cornmeal, preferably finely-ground
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup water
3 tablespoons sunflower or olive oil
Combine all ingredients in a bowl until a firm, but not wet dough forms. Add a bit more water if needed. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes so that the corn absorbs the water—this will ensure they don’t fall apart on you.
When the dough is ready, using your hands, take a handful of dough and form into 6 large or 12 small oval patties.
Heat oil in a large cast-iron skillet on medium heat. Working in batches, place the cornmeal cakes in the hot oil. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 5 to 6 minutes or until bottom side is golden brown. Uncover, flip the cakes, and repeat.
Serve immediately or at room temperature with lobio and cheese.