My Father’s father and grandfather and so forth for at least five generations back were orthodox Christian priests. They all attended the Academy of Theology where they studied history, geography, Old Church Slavic language, Latin, and Greek. In addition to achieving academic success, they had to be able to carry a tune, sing well, and have a good voice. In the 18th and 19th century Serbia, having a child accepted into priesthood was not only an honor, but a relief to the family. The youngster would get an education and be well fed. And unlike Catholic priests, orthodox priests have to get married and have a family before taking the oath, unless they choose the life of a monk.
My Father broke the magic circle and became a surgeon. We were not raised in religion, but we followed the traditions and rituals of orthodox faith. On Christmas Eve and Good Friday we abstained from red meat, eggs, and dairy. Throughout the year, Wednesdays and Fridays were the days we ate fish, seafood or altogether meatless dishes. Mother’s menu planning regularly included dishes that just happened to prolong the lives of the beasts of the field anyway, so this constriction did not cause any rebellion among the family troops.
One of the most anticipated accompaniments to pan-fried trout* was this baked bean dish, called “prebranac” in Serbian. Plump butter beans sweetened by caramelized onions and paprika, with a bay leaf or two for an edgy contrast, were baked in an earthenware dish until its peaks and ravines became barely blushed.
Sure, it can be made with any meat, or on its own with a couple of eggs fried sunny side up, but for me, its taste reaches the most sublime level when served with fish. The beans melt in my mouth and my heart melts in my chest, remembering all the Fridays of my childhood as my family came together over this comforting dish.
*The continental cuisine of landlocked Serbia drew its resources from the rivers and lakes where trout, catfish, and bass swam for their lives, often without success. It should also be noted that, after the ingestion of three or more adult beverages, the fine members of the porcine community also count as “fish.”
PREBRANAC – SERBIAN BAKED BEANS
This is my mother’s recipe, but variations of this dish are common all over the Balkans.
- 250gr (1/2 lb) butter beans (â€œtetovacâ€)
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 Tbsp sunflower oil
- 3-4 medium to large onions, sliced thinly
- 2 tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
- 2 tsp sweet paprika
- 2 bay leaves
Soak the beans in cold water overnight (if you forget, just put the beans in a dutch oven, or 5 quart pot, add enough water to cover, heat to boil, and drain). Add 2 quarts of water and garlic, and heat on high until it boils. Turn the temperature down and simmer until the beans are soft but not falling apart, 2-3 hours.
Heat the oil in skillet on medium temperature and add onions, salt and pepper. Caramelize until nicely brown, about 45 minutes, stiring frequently to prevent scorching. Add paprika.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
When the beans are cooked, drain the water, but reserve half a cup. Mix in the onions and reserved cooking water, and pour into an earthen ware dish (or any oven-proof dish). Taste and adjust the amounts of salt and pepper. Stick the bay leaves inside the beans and bake for 45 minutes, until golden on top. Remove the bay leaves and serve.
Variation: After mixing beans and onions, puree with a fork, or potato masher (I have never tried the food processor and can only assume that the consistency would be similar to hummus), pour into the baking dish and bake.