Balkan bean stew (aka grah or pasulj) is a one-pot, hearty-stock stew made with just a few ingredients. It does take 4 hrs to make (most of which you don’t have to be present for), but boy do good things come to those who wait!
Today I’m sharing a state secret with you!
For the first time ever written in English language, below is the recipe for a delicious Balkan bean stew concocted by no other than the JNA (Yugoslav National Army) cooks back in the 70s and 80s. (Unless of course someone else already translated it.)
I’ve noticed this recipe several times on FB and Balkan websites in the past few weeks. It came with claims that this stew will DOMINATE all other Balkan bean stews ever made, for as long as you shall live. And longer. Yes, the descriptions were that dramatic.
As you know, I get beyond excited about any “secret” recipe, even though most of these secrets turn out to be total BS. But this recipe peaked my curiosity because:
1. Army cooks are notorious for making amazing stews; and
2. The recipe called for no meat and I was dubious a bean stew without meat could be any good.
Now if you’ve ever been a scout, or belonged to any outdoorsy club, you know the joys of eating under the sky with your buddies. (I won’t even go into this with all of you out there who’ve been in the army, because you experienced better than anyone the sheer happiness that is a stew which simmered for hours.) The outside air, the stars, the fire – in short the atmosphere – makes everything taste better.
Even something as simple as a sandwich, tastes like the best sandwich ever!
The first time I experienced this I about nine, while on a beach trip with the scouts. Scouts in the former Yugoslavia (yes, this trip was that long ago) were coed, so both girls and boys did scouting activities together. I must mention there was a disproportionate number of older teenagers. Looking back, this probably had less to do with their love of nature and more with the opportunity to make out and maybe even have sex somewhere in the forest. However, I was totally oblivious to this at the time.
I ended up in the scouts because I had a connection (aka an uncle who was a lifelong scout), and because my parents couldn’t wait to ship me off for two weeks during the summer so they could deal with two children instead of three. They were so eager to send me away, in fact, they didn’t even pack most of the stuff I was supposed to bring, so I had to borrow everything from a teacup to soap. They did give me a wad of cash which, having zero education in money management, I later used to make it rain like a celebrity at a strip club.
To say I was a terrible scout is an understatement. There wasn’t a knot I couldn’t make even more knot-ty, or the fire I could start. I didn’t follow direction well, and almost chopped my foot during wood cutting. But being honest about my inabilities made me somewhat of a mascot for this older crowd.
Everything about this trip was perfect. In fact as I write this, memories are flooding me: the first independent bus ride to Mali Zaton, a charming town near Dubrovnik where we set up… the tent I shared with the most horrible and obnoxious little girl I met… learning how to swim with no aid… a seventeen year old that busted her face while diving and had to go to the emergency room… ninja-warrior style games we played while learning scout skills… a bad storm that ripped up a tree from its roots, and sent it right down the middle of our tent in between our two sleeping bags, almost killing us in the process and scaring the life out of the most horrible and obnoxious little girl I ever met… and finally the trip being cut short, the first indication of the war that was reaching us with furious speed.
What I most remember about that trip though was discovering I had an appetite. From my birth and until that age I never experienced hunger. Ever. Like most kids I really liked chocolate, but to get me to eat food my parents had to sit across from me at the table and wait, wait, and wait.
But there… in the forest near the beach and under the stars, along lovely sounds of campfire guitar, I finally learned the happiness of eating a stew that’s been simmered for hours.
Before making this stew, please remember you’ll need to soak the beans well in advance. Also, if you have trouble making a roux (which is just a fancy word for stew thickener made with equal parts fat and flour), here is a great video.
- ⅓ pound pinto or other dried beans
- 1 large onion (yellow or white)
- 2 medium carrots
- 1-2 small dried red peppers
- 1 bay leaf
- Pepper and salt to taste
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon flour
- 1 garlic clove (or 1 teaspoon garlic powder)
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- Soak beans in plenty of water (at least two inches above the beans) for 3 hours.*
- Drain beans, and discard water. Transfer beans into a pot in which you'll be making the stew. Add 2 cups of fresh water. Cook on high for 15 minutes. Drain again and discard the water. Add 4-5 fresh cups of hot water, lower temperature to medium, and continue simmering the stew. Put dried peppers in a cup of water to soak.
- After 90 minutes, mince onion and carrots, and brown on a little bit of oil in a small pan. Transfer to the stew when done. Add dried peppers and bay leaf. Continue simmering the stew for another 90 minutes (the stew will simmer for at least 3 hours total).** Throughout this time, add a little bit of hot water to the stew if necessary, to keep the same level of liquid in the pot. Do not mix the stew at all to prevent the breakage of beans.
- After the 3 hours, get the roux ready. Melt the butter in a small pan. Once it's melted add flour a little at a time, all while whisking the mixture to prevent it from burning. After about 3-4 minutes, the roux will go from yellow to brown. Add minced garlic and paprika. Whisk everything for another minute.
- Add the roux to the stew by slowly pouring it in, while stirring the stew. Stirring will prevent the roux from clumping inside the stew, and instead will thicken the liquid nicely and evenly. Simmer everything for another 30 minutes. Try the stew and add salt and pepper to taste. Mince parsley and sprinkle over the stew. Serve hot, alone or with polenta, rice or pasta.
** The beans are about ready when they are chewy, but not falling apart, and definitely do not have a "crunch" when you bite into one.
Please note the photos are not indicative as to how much liquid is really in the stew. I removed a lot of it for photographing.