Adapted from A Fistful of Lentils by Jennifer Abadi, 2002, Harvard Common Press.
Purim is a merrymaking holiday with many food-related traditions, including giving mishloach manot to family and friends and eating triangular-shaped hamantaschen. But beyond these better-known customs lies one with a lower profile, the eating of beans. Bean and chickpea dishes are typically served at the festive meal on Purim day to evoke Queen Esther’s diet while in the court of King Ahasuerus, where the midrash relates that she ate only beans to avoid non-kosher fare. Legumes are also a traditional food for mourners–some suggest that Esther consumed them when she heard of Haman’s plan for the Jewish people.
Beans have been a part of Jewish cuisine since Biblical times. The Book of Daniel, which recounts Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of Jerusalem, recounts how Daniel and his entourage ate a diet of pulses (the seeds of common legumes) and water for ten days in lieu of the food their captors were offering. In her book Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, Edda Servi Machlin remembers how beans were prized for their protein when meat and fish were simply too expensive for most members of her Tuscan-Jewish community. Ashkenazi Jews have long used beans in their Sabbath cholent–their sturdiness makes them perfect for the dish’s extended cooking time.
This warm, fragrant bean recipe, adapted from Jennifer Abadi’s A Fistful of Lentils, a cookbook and memoir about her Syrian-Jewish family, falls somewhere between a soup and a stew. It’s completely vegetarian, very satisfying, and–best of all–you may already have all of the ingredients in your pantry.
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups cold water or broth
1 Tablespoon lightly packed brown sugar
1 6oz can tomato paste
1 14oz can diced tomatoes with juice
1 lb (2 1/2 cups) dried cannelini or navy beans
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped (about 2 1/2 cups)
2 Tablespoons minced garlic
Cover the beans with cold water and remove any rocks, dirt, or other debris from the surface of the water. Drain water and transfer to a 4-quart saucepan. Cover with water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer vigorously until beans are just cooked but not soft, about 45 minutes. Drain water and reserve beans.
Heat the oil in a heavy soup pot over medium-high heat. Cook the onions, stirring, until translucent, about 4-5 minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 additional minute; do not burn. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, about 2 minutes. Add diced tomatoes, water, brown sugar, cinnamon, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Return to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer over medium-low heat until beans are very soft and liquid has thickened considerably, about 1 1/2-2 hours.
Serve in bowls over basmati rice.
Pronounced: PUR-im, the Feast of Lots, Origin: Hebrew, a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period.