First, the name: Is plaki a stew with fish or meat, or is it, as my grandmother used the word, the white bean stew that, over the years, she developed to something near-perfection? My friends I. and T., both of Greek extraction, say that the word plaki was used in their extended family to refer to fish stew, and that their Greek language dictionary confirms this. They are right, I am sure, but for expediency’s sake I will go with my grandmother’s designation, which is quite common in the Middle East. Plaki is almost always white bean stew.
Second, the adulation: Of all the grain stews of the Middle East, plaki is by far the most gentle, the most colorful, the most satisfying. It’s not exactly a stew, for it is a bit thicker than your conventional stews of these shores. Easy to make, easy to keep, it brings color and subtle taste to any festive table. It can be consumed by itself, with a good, crusty bread, ripe olives, and pickles. It can be eaten warm or at room temperature. For all its modesty, plaki will not play second fiddle to a meat dish. It’s simply too good for that, and those of us who have made plaki a staple of our nourishment know it.
Third, the significance: Plaki is a transnational dish (as is so much of the cuisine of the Middle East). I have eaten it in Istanbul and Beirut and Aleppo and other places in between, not to mention Boston and Los Angeles and Paris and New York. My grandmother said she had learned it in the Balkans, where she grew up. Every time I am at a table where plaki is served, I am amazed at the improvisations this unassuming dish can withstand .
One cup of white beans; 2 celery stalks; 2 carrot stalks; 1 mid-sized onion; 4-5 cloves of garlic; 1 mid-sized potato; 3-4 tablespoons of red pepper paste or tomato paste; 1/2 cup of chopped parsley; 1/2 teaspoon of sugar; 2-4 tablespoons of olive oil; salt and pepper
Bring the rinsed beans to a boil. Discard the water. Bring to a boil again with 3-4 cups of water. Lower heat and cook until the beans are almost done, but not quite.
In the meantime, cut up all the vegetables. In an open skillet, and without any oil, heat the onions on moderate heat until they turn translucent. When the beans are almost cooked, add the onions, the red pepper paste or the tomato sauce, the carrots, the celery, potato, garlic, salt and pepper, and sugar. Cook, stirring frequently, on low heat.
When the plaki is completely cooked, turn off the heat, add the olive oil, then the chopped parsley. Serve with crusty bread, ripe olives, and pickles.