Why It Works
- Salting the meat 40 minutes before cooking helps keep it moist after the long braise.
- Anchovies are not a standard ingredient in fassoulia, but they give the dish additional depth of flavor without adding any overt anchovy flavor.
- Long, gentle cooking (or pressure cooking) yields meat and green beans that are both meltingly tender.
Every Armenian family has their own recipe for ganach lupia or ganach fassoulia—tomato-braised green beans. This dish is so fundamental to Armenian cuisine that its name means simply “green beans” (ganach is Armenian for “green” and lupia is the Armenian word for “bean”; fassoulia is the Arabic word for “bean”). To put it another way, when an Armenian hears the term “green beans” or even just “beans,” it is this dish and not the raw vegetable that first comes to mind. (The fact that Armenians often refer to the dish by its Arabic name is evidence of its popularity throughout the Southwest Asian/North African region.) It’s fundamental in another way, as it's an example of a class of similar tomato-braised vegetable dishes in Armenian cooking (bamiya, or tomato-braised okra, is another essential one).
As you’d expect from such a common recipe, there are numerous variations on the theme. There are vegetarian versions, where the beans are braised in a mixture of water and tomatoes, and meat versions, which include beef or lamb, either on or off the bone. The common denominator is the inclusion of onions and garlic as base flavors, along with time—vegetarian or not, the dish is cooked for hours, until the beans (and meat, if included) are meltingly tender and deeply savory. This is because green beans take a long time to cook until tender, since they contain a lot of lignin, the same cellulose-based compound that makes wood hard.
In my family, this dish—which we just call “fassoulia”—is made with lamb, and we usually use lamb neck or bone-in shoulder. While this is definitely a “meaty” main dish, the green beans are the star: the dish includes an equal weight of beans as it does meat, and a large percentage of the latter’s weight is taken up by bones. The meat is meant to accompany the beans and not the other way around— it's included more as a source of umami depth and richness than it is for protein heft. In this recipe, I’ve called for bone-in shoulder chops because they're easy to come by, but if you can find lamb neck bones, you should definitely use those instead. (Because lamb neck bones are rich in both collagen and fat, they’ll give the fassoulia a lip-smacking unctuousness.) I’ve also included an option for using beef, if you’d prefer to use that over lamb.
For the tomato component, I use both coarsely crushed, canned plum tomatoes and tomato paste for a double dose of tomato flavor. To add even more flavor, I add mild Middle Eastern-style red pepper paste—for additional sweetness and depth—and anchovies. The last ingredient is definitely not something you’ll find in other Armenian fassoulia recipes, but it's something I reach for all the time when I want to lay down yet another base layer of umami in a dish. Used judiciously, it's never noticeable as itself, only as intense savoriness. For the spicing, I use black pepper and allspice, but only in subtle, harmonizing amounts.
While making fassoulia is usually a long, low, and slow affair, there is one way to speed things along: Use a pressure cooker. What normally takes about two hours in a low (325°F/160°C) oven is done in just 12 minutes in a pressure cooker, along with however much time it takes for the cooker to come to high pressure, and the 20 minutes or so it takes to depressurize. I’ve included instructions and timing for cooking it whichever way you like; both yield identical results. Because the oven version requires a bit of stirring, I add the green beans near the midpoint, so they don’t fall apart once the lamb is cooked through. Long-cooked green beans hold their shape, but are prone to disintegrating if over-agitated. (For similar reasons, it’s best to stir the finished dish gently, no matter which way you make it.)
Serve fassoulia with a dollop of cooling, tangy yogurt, along with Armenian-style rice or bulgur pilaf with pasta.