Mrs Bailey’s Prebanac
Serbian recipes came to Mars just the same way as any other, in the minds and hearts — and stomachs! — of emigrant or refugee Serbs. It’s always the comfort foods that travel best, and then nestle most deeply into the repertoires of those who encounter them freshly. Prebenac offers the ultimate in comfort, being easy and unhurried and almost ridiculously cheap; and it proved to be perfect pioneer food, because who doesn’t have a sack of beans and a sack of onions in their wagon when they hit the trail?
Similarly, it came to the Crater School the usual way, passed on to Mrs Bailey by a girl who’d learned it from her Serbian grandmother. Traditionally it’s served at room temperature, but that is one tradition with which Mrs Bailey will have no truck; she believes profoundly that winter dishes should be served warm, to keep her girls aglow.
A note about paprika: there’s no native industry producing this particular spice on Mars yet, so Mrs B almost always uses Spanish, either sweet or smoked. It’s expensive, like any import, but she finds the cost worthwhile. I, on the other hand, have something of a paprika problem. There are never less than half a dozen varieties in this house, and often more. I have embarked on a project, therefore, of making this dish with each variety in turn, to see which I prefer. I’ll report back, once final conclusions are in.
Oh, and the same is true of beans. I’m a proud member of the Rancho Gordo Bean Club, and my larder overfloweth with variety. The tradition here calls for lima beans, and the dish is really good with any large variety, but honestly you could use almost any.
500g dried beans (see note above)
4 large onions, sliced
120g olive oil
half a dozen cloves of garlic, crushed
heaped tablespoon of paprika (see note above)
three or four bay leaves
Soak your beans overnight, and drain them come the morning. Transfer to a large saucepan, cover with two inches of water, boil hard for five minutes, then reduce the heat and simmer until tender, topping up the water as needed.
Put the oil and the onions into a large pot (cast iron if you have it), and set over a low heat so that they warm together. (This accentuates the sweetness in the onion. Oh, and while I have your attention, yes: you really do want that much oil. Trust me in this.) Sizzle the onion gently for half an hour or more, until totally soft and unctuous; stir often, and don’t let it darken.
Add the beans, with enough of their cooking water to cover. Save the rest in case of need. Stir in the garlic, paprika and bay leaves. Season generously with salt and pepper, and transfer to a preheated 300F oven, uncovered.
Let them cook for another couple of hours, topping up the liquor to keep the beans just lightly covered. In the last half-hour, let them form a dark dry crust over the surface. Serve with pretty much anything, but they’re spectacularly good with pork. Or, y’know, just bread.
You can find more of Mrs Bailey’s recipes here:
…and the many adventures of the Crater School girls may be found here: