I made a bean, beef sausage and pork dish the other day that we’ve been talking about since. Not because it was so fantastic (although it wasn’t terrible either), but because not all of our immediate family members can agree on what it is. I say it’s North Macedonia’s national dish, while my Lousiana-born significant other foolishly claims it’s Creole Cassoulet.
I looked it up. It could very well be both. It could also be French Cassoulet or Serbian Prebranac.
Easy as beans
It all began with Erik’s expat pining after refried beans. We have a saying ’round these Balkan parts. When something is dumbfoundingly simple and requires very little effort or talent, we say it’s easy as beans, or “prosto kao pasulj.” The Balkans are bean country. There are dozens upon dozens of bean dishes in every Balkan country, most of them reserved for cold winter months.
I figured, with my extensive Serbian heritage and decent cooking skills, I could surely pull off some simple frijoles refritos. I began by ordering some proper organic pinto beans. At the time of ordering, however, I forgot that frijoles refritos are a staple dish. So I may have ordered (a few pounds) too many.
The new Macedonian name dispute
Turns out making refried beans from scratch really is easy as beans. But I was still left with more beans than I knew what to do with (and there’s still more down in the pantry, even after this post). There’s only one other dish that I know how to make that can work with pinto beans, so I decided to whip that up for dinner.
I know the dish as Gravče na Tavče or Tavče Gravče. In Macedonian, “grav” means beans and “tava” means pan. Beans in a pan. Or, if you will, Macedonian refried beans. But the Balkan main dish, not the Mexican staple.
I was kind of excited to introduce my expat husband to yet another unique Balkan dish. Except when we sat down to dinner, he was excited about having what he claims is a typical New Orleans dish, Creole Cassoulet.
Nuh-uh. I don’t think so. NORTH MACEDONIA HAS HAD QUITE ENOUGH OF THE WORLD’S SHIT WITH THIS NAME DISPUTE STUFF, THANK YOU VERY MUCH. (Please note that there is a similar Greek dish by the name of Fasoulotavas, but it is a vegetarian dish made with butter or elephant beans. Kthanksbye.)
Wikipedia sort of/kind of supports his claim, although the same platform also states that the dish can only be made with kidney beans. I’ve tried it with both kidney and pinto beans and the pinto bean version is better.
Macedonian refried beans recipe
Macedonian Gravče na Tavče
- Large skillet or wok
- Casserole dish
- Pressure cooker (optional)
- 750 g fresh pinto or kidney beans
- 200 g beef sausage
- 200 g smoked ham or ham hock
- 100 g kulen or pepperoni
- 4 tbsp lard or bacon grease
- 2 large onions
- 4-5 cloves garlic minced or crushed
- 2 large red bell peppers
- 2 tbsp red pepper flakes Macedonian red pepper flakes, if you can get them
- 2 tsp chili powder
- 2 cubes chicken stock or a tbsp of Vegeta, if you have it
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 2 tsp smoked paprika
- lots of parsley to taste (I use a lot)
- In a large pot, soak the beans overnight or for 6 to 8 hours. There should be twice as much water as is needed to just cover the beans and adding a tbsp of coarse sea salt to the water helps tenderize the beans. And no, I don't care what any crockpot-toting Tom, Dick or Harry says – you absolutely cannot skip this step.
- Using a pressure cooker will significantly cut down the cooking time, but I prefer not to use one. I find that it does alter the flavor somewhat and the beans don't quite tenderize the way they do when they're cooked old-school, on a stovetop.
- After the beans have soaked overnight, dump the water, wash the beans in fresh water, and refill the pot with water. Add the chicken stock cubes (or Vegeta) and chili powder to the water, then bring to a boil on high heat. Once the pot has 'turned' a 5-minute boil, turn down to medium or medium-high and let simmer for a good 3 hours until beans are entirely tender. Keep checking the pot every half hour or so and add water as needed.
- When the beans have cooked, set them aside. Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F and cube all of the meats.
- Grab a large skillet or wok (you'll be adding all of the meat and beans to it later), put it on medium heat, and melt the lard or bacon grease in it. Chop the onions and caramelize them in the grease. Add the minced onions about halfway through caramelizing the onions.
- Prepare the chopped meats and add them to the onions, a handful at a time, stirring after each addition. Saute until the meats release flavor and juices.
- Add the beans, one ladle at a time, including the liquid. DO NOT DRAIN BEANS BEFORE ADDING. Add the other spices and parsley, stirring them into the dish well. Saute another 10 minutes until everything blends nicely.
- Pour the entire contents of the skillet into the casserole dish and place in oven for about 30 minutes.
- Serve hot with fresh bread, cornbread or white rice.