Istanbul is probably one of the most unexpectedly vibrant cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. In all of my European travel stints, I have visited two places multiple times – Istanbul, Turkey and Fes, Morocco. I would also tell you that Turkey and Morocoo have been my favorite countries traveled to while living in Europe (Bosnia or Croatia come in at a close 3rd and 4th).
One of the most striking things about Istanbul both times I visited has been the food. One meal during my second visit has always stuck out to me as particularly memorable for being particularly comforting.
It was colder than we anticipated for May in Istanbul, and we had just finished visiting the Suleymaniye Mosque. We decided to have lunch at a nearby restaurant and sit on the terrace. We were not very proficient at ordering Turkish food at this point, so the waiter made a suggestion for which dish to order, and all three of us took him up on that suggestion. Arriving at the table a few minutes later was a warm, smoky, and tomato-y stewed bean dish. It was perfect for sitting outside on the cool day and taking in the architecture of the mosque.
This dish is an ode to that comfort food that we found in the middle of busy Istanbul. My version is more stew like than the ones we ate that day but still gives that warm, satisfied feeling.
You can use either dried beans or canned beans for this recipe. Since the beans are the star, I went with dried. I find they have a better texture. Instructions for starting with dried beans are below, but you can easily substitute two cans of rinsed beans and proceed straight to the directions for the stew.
Basic Cannellini Beans:
- ½ lb dried cannellini beans (great northern beans work as well)
- 2 tbsp plus ½ tsp kosher salt, divided
- 1 onion peeled and quartered, root end intact
- 2-3 cloves garlic, peeled whole
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 carrot
- 1-2 ribs of celery, or 1 bunch of celery hearts
Rinse the beans and pick through discarding any broken beans or debris. Place in large pot and cover with cold water and kosher salt. Be sure to cover the beans with enough water so they remain covered once expanded. Let sit between 8 and 24 hours – I find overnight works best.
Drain and rinse the beans once they have finished soaking. Add hydrated beans to the large pot once again along with the aromatics (onion, garlic, bay leaf, carrot, celery). Add water to the pot so the entire mixture is well submerged, around 8 cups in total. Stir in ½ tsp kosher salt.
Bring the beans to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, cover and reduce heat to medium low making sure to cock the lid to allow some of the cooking water to evaporate. Let simmer for 1 hour. After an hour, test a few beans for doneness. They should be soft but not overly mushy. If none are soft, continue cooking for another 10 minutes and test again. If some are soft but not all, continue cooking for another 5 minutes until all beans tested are soft. I typically test 4-5 at a time.
Once all the beans are soft, remove from heat and pick out aromatics, being sure to reserve the garlic cloves for the stew. If using beans right away, drain the beans and reserve the broth that remains. If saving beans for later use, do not drain the broth before transferring to storage containers.
For the Turkish Beans:
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 yellow onion diced
- Reserved garlic cloves from bean cooking liquid, mashed (if available)
- 1 garlic clove minced
- 2 tbsp smoked paprika
- ½ tbsp cumin
- 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 can (10.75 oz) tomato puree
- ½ cup – 1 cup reserved bean broth or vegetable broth
- Cooked cannellini beans
- ½ tbsp lemon juice (optional)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large saute pan or dutch oven over medium heat. Add onions and saute 5 minutes or until onions are translucent. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds more until garlic is fragrant. Stir in mashed garlic cloves from the bean broth if available.
Add spices and stir to combine. Once the spices are added, saute the mixture for about a minute then add tomato puree and saute for a minute more.
Finally add broth, lemon juice and the reserved beans. Stir to combine, reduce heat to low and let simmer for a few minutes.
After the beans have simmered for a few minutes test for flavor. Add additional lemon juice, broth, or spices as necessary. Finish with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve warm with pita bread or naan and a green salad. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil, a shake of paprika, and some chopped parsley.