It is barbunya beans season. These delicious nutty beans with red or dark purple speckles packed with a long list of health benefits (google it!) are also called borlotti, cranberry, roman (not the Italian green ones), or October beans. In Turkey these reddish delicious beans are named after yet another red deliciousness: the Mediterranean red mullet, aka barbunya, from the Greek barbounia.
Barbunya beans arrive at the farmer’s markets in Turkey in midsummer, in pods, and when they do arrive they immediately become the most expensive item on the carts. Since people wait for their arrival for so long, at the time of their arrival they’re ready to pay whatever—it’s definitely a seller’s market. By the end of the summer and end of the barbunya season, however, barbunya stocks start to go down and barbunya lovers invest in kilos and kilos of barbunyas. They pod them and keep them in the freezer for the long barbunya deprived winter. Although you can find dry barbunyas year around, fresh barbunyas are always, and I cannot emphasize this enough, always preferred to dried ones.
Barbunyas are always cooked the same way in Turkish cuisine, i.e. vegetarian, in generous amount of olive oil with tomatoes. Cooked in any other way, it’s considered a pity, a total waste. “The” barbunya dish, the Istanbul style, is called barbunya pilaki. The word pilaki also comes from Greek (remember “gigantes plaki”?) and in its Turkish form, the word is a generic name for a dish of vegetables or seafood slowly braised with onion, garlic, and tomatoes in olive oil and served cold or at room temperature. However, although there are scrumptious seafood pilakis, the name in time happened to be associated only with bean pilakis, cannellini and barbunya, to be specific. This is my recipe for barbunya pilaki.
Barbunya pilaki is traditionally made with potatoes and carrots; however, I really do not like potatoes in this dish; I strongly believe that potatoes cloud the flavor of barbunyas. I replace potatoes for green sweet peppers, or in their absence, with sweat Italian peppers.
I usually cook barbunyas in pressure cooker, since it’s faster. You can use this recipe with regular or instant pots as well.
2 lb of fresh barbunyas in pod, pod them. Sometimes when they are very fresh, the pods are firm and hard to pod. If that’s the case, leave them in a fabric bag for a day or two to breathe and loosen up.
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or thinly sliced
1 potato, peeled and diced
OR, if you want to try my version 3-4 sweet green peppers, chopped in small pieces
1 carrot, cut in half or quarter moons
2 big tomatoes, grated or crushed in a food processor
1/3 cup olive oil, for starters and if you’re ready for it add a heaping tbsp more (we do believe in olive oil)
1 tbsp tomato paste (optional)
1 cup hot water
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp or more salt
-Pod all the beans. Your 2 lb fresh barbunya beans will diminish to 1 lb once podded. They might come in different sizes and colors, all fine. Don’t be alarmed; they will loose their bright colors and turn brownish once cooked. Still, all good.
-Add olive oil in your pot and once warmed up add onions. Cook for 4-5 minutes on medium to high heat until softened.
-Add sugar, garlic, peppers or potatoes, and carrots, and cook for 2-3 minutes.
-If you think your tomatoes won’t give a vibrant red color, which happens a lot, you can use tomato paste. If so, add it now and cook for a minute.
-Add barbunyas and tomatoes, and stir for a minute or two.
-Add water and salt.
-If you’re using a pressure cooker, cover and cook on low after the steam comes out for 16-18 minutes. (I have a young clientele who like soft food, so I go for 18 minutes). If you’re using a regular pot, cover and simmer for 30-35 minutes on low until beans are cooked. Check now and then to make sure it doesn’t run out of water. If it does, boil some water before adding more.
-Once it is cooked, let it cool down to room temperature in its pot with the lid on.
Barbunya pilaki is a traditional olive oil dish and like all olive oil dishes it is served at room temperature or cold, with lemon slices. A splash of lemon juice brightens up barbunyas in unimaginable ways. Serve with grilled meat, with rice on the side or with crusty bread. It’ll keep in the fridge for a week.