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This time of year, a lot of us are scrambling for new recipes to try on guests and family. It seems, more often than not, that folks are searching for the latest killer dessert, or an appetizer so awe inspiring that it dominates the conversation at all future gatherings.

And while we’re eager to experiment with beginnings and endings, and even main courses, the sides often seem to get short shrift. There’s always the familiar and sometimes tedious parade of starches and veggies. But, I suppose that it’s not surprising since these holiday meals are pretty labor intensive, so something’s got to give.

But, this year, why not consider sidestepping one of your usual sides for one that delivers as much of a flavor punch as your main attraction? I’m talking about a dish that goes toe-toe with an elegant rack of lamb, or even a majestic pork loin, not to mention my favorite prime rib. And, as a bonus, you can even make it the day before.

Allow me to introduce you to Basque-style garbanzo beans. Yes, garbanzo beans. And, please, don’t scoff. These aren’t the drab little marbles from the stale salad bar. Quite the contrary.  

At one point in my life, I spent plenty of time in an area that was lucky enough to have several Basque restaurants. And Sunday meals at these places taught me that, while meat is indeed king to these sheepherders, side dishes are just as important and deserving of the same respect given to a perfectly roasted chicken, pan-fried lamb chop or t-bone steak. And, those Basques, with their fiery blend of Spanish and French blood, certainly know how to keep the hits coming throughout the family style meals. I still remember signature potato salad dotted with tiny bay shrimp on the heels of the house-made chicken noodle soup that came in large metal tureens. Even as kids, we’d get to add a slug from the generic bottles of house red to our soup bowls.

But one of my favorite dishes came out on large shallow, oval platters, which were piled with little round garbanzo beans drenched in a rich sauce that probably sprang from a base of fresh lamb stock. The beans were flecked with bits of tomatoes and gave off a garlicky, herby perfume. That’s the first dish that comes to mind when I think of a perfect Basque meal.

Since I never found a recipe for these savory beans, I went about putting one together that takes me right back to those festive Sunday suppers where strangers shared table space with weathered sheepherders long retired from tending their flocks.

This dish is easy to make and, unlike most other beans, garbanzos can take a lot of cooking without getting all mushy. So, you can pretty much put these on the stove and ignore them as you go about your business. Just don’t stir garbanzos too much or too vigorously because you’ll cause the skin to come off. Not a tragedy, but it does affect the nice round shape of the beans. And note that even when garbanzos are totally cooked through, they still have a little pop to them.

I hope this recipe finds its way into one of your holiday meals this year.

Basque Style Garbanzo Beans

About 5 strips of bacon. I like to use a few hunks of Trader Joe’s uncured applewood-smoked bacon ends and pieces. You also can use a smoked turkey wing or smoked ham hock.

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1 pound dried garbanzo beans, cleaned and rinsed. I don’t bother with an overnight soak.

4 large shallots, thinly sliced into rings

1 bell pepper, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced or crushed

1 teaspoon smoked paprika (I like hot, but you can use sweet, just don’t bother with the tasteless stuff sprinkled on cottage cheese.)

1 tablespoon dried, crushed oregano

4 or 5 whole bay leaves

1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon sugar

Splash of Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper to taste

Water or stock

Place a large Dutch oven over medium heat, add the bacon or other smoked meat suggested. If you’re not using bacon, then add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the pan. Stir the bacon around until it gets crispy. If you’re using the bacon hunks, ham hock or smoked turkey wing, stir them around in the hot oil for a couple of minutes.

Lower the heat and add the shallots and bell pepper, stir until veggies are soft. Add a dab more olive oil if your pan is too dry.

Add the garlic, smoked paprika, oregano and bay leaves, stir for a minute or so, but make sure not to burn your garlic.

Raise the heat to medium high and add the tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pan to loosen any bits. Add a can of water or stock, letting the mixture bubble for a few minutes.

Add the sugar and Worcestershire sauce, and stir in the beans. Now, add 4 cans of water or stock.

Add about 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper. I like a lot of pepper. You can use more salt later when the beans are done and you taste for seasonings.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer. Cook covered on low for about three hours. Check them and stir occasionally.

After about three hours, remove the lid, turn up the heat and let the garbanzos bubble lightly until much of the liquid has evaporated.

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If you only know garbanzo beans from salad bars and hummus, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how versatile, delicious and nutritious these little guys are. Garbanzo beans, ceci beans or chickpeas, whatever you choose to call them, are packed with soluble and insoluble fiber and provide an excellent source of dietary protein.

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These bacon pieces offer just the right amount of flavor. You can discard them when serving or you might find that some people like the chewy bits.

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Feel free to dice your shallots if you’d rather.

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I used a brown stock I had on hand, and I find that stock really does bump up the flavor over water.

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Now all of the ingredients are ready to get cooking.

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Through the steam, you can see that the liquid has reduced a bit after a couple of hours. Now is when I leave the top off and let the liquid hit the road so that the juices can concentrate, leaving the garbanzos infused with the flavors from the stock and herbs. Oh, yes, and the garlic.

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And now they’re ready to stand alongside the most noble cut of meat – or on their own as a meal with a hunk of bread to sop up the glorious juices.

Make these. I’d love to know what you think.