Very, very new season garlic appeared at the market today. I was thrilled to see the garlic and the promise of spring it brings. The season of artichokes, broad beans, sweet baby peas and juicy asparagus is just around the corner. Spring must really be the most delightful season for vegetarians! While there was super fresh and juicy garlic at the market, sadly I am going to have to wait a little longer for the other delights of spring until the chill of winter has defrosted. This is where my trusty bag of frozen peas stepped in. I hardly ever use frozen foods, but peas are the one staple that are always in my freezer - combined with the new season garlic, spring was just at a moments reach.
As soon as I saw the fresh garlic at the market, I immediately started craving a beautiful vegetarian dish, called 'biselli (pea) - arakas laderos' (μπιζέλια - Αρακάς λαδερός) which I first tried in one of the eateries in Athens Central Market. This delicious vegetable stew calls for peas, carrots, fresh tomatoes, onion, fresh garlic, and dill.
The market is known as the 'Varvakios Agora' (Βαρβάκειος Αγορά) and like many markets in Europe, it has a number of casual 'workers' tavernas. They are located near the meat market and there is also one other underground taverna near the vegetable market. When I lasted visited Athens, Mr K and I chose to eat at the Eiprus taverna, where all of the dishes for the day are laid out under the glass counter for easy viewing. The cooking is very traditional, home style Greek cooking. The dishes change from day to day, depending on what is in season - and when the dish runs out, it's done for the day! This is one of the reasons why I love market tavenas - you know everything is fresh and in season, straight from the stalls and sellers right in front of you.
The atmosphere of Eiprus Taverna is incredibly relaxed and welcoming - I was even invited behind the counter and into the kitchen to take a closer look at the offerings for the day. After wandering through the meat market - I was happy to opt for fish and vegetable dishes. We tried some small fried fish, okra slow cooked in tomato sauce and this lovely pea stew. It has stayed in my memory ever since. However, should you be so inclined the taverna also offers an impressive range of meat and offal dishes - from slow roasted lamb with plenty of lemon and rigani to a tripe soup, for which the taverna is famous - apparently a tried and tested hangover cure!
In terms of the market itself, my favourite area is definitely the fish market, which is full of colourful sellers - who really know how to put on a show to get your attention. There is a huge variety on sale, including giant octopus tentacles and my favourite, sea bass. My tip when visiting the market is to wear closed in shoes - like all fish markets the ground is really wet and you'll want to avoid having slimey feet for the rest of the day. Surrounding the fish market on each side is the meat market and across the road are the fruits and vegetables. There are also lots of dairy shops selling cheese, milk and yoghurt, plus shops selling wine, spices, herbs, olives, olive oil and more - even live chickens.
This recipe comes from the tradition of 'lathera' cooking in Greece, which is basically vegetarian dishes cooked in olive oil, with a combination of herbs and tomato.The term 'lathera' comes from the word lathi, Greek for oil. It is a firm staple of regular household meals (being Lenten friendly) and one of the reasons why the Mediterranean diet is so good for you - Lathera, dishes provide the advantage of consuming large amounts of vegetables effortlessly. The olive oil itself is also rich in antioxidants and monounsaturated fats. Importantly, it interacts with other ingredients increasing the absorption of vitamins and antioxidants from the vegetables.
Biselli (pea) - Arakas Laderos
(μπιζέλια - Αρακάς λαδερός)
500 grams fresh or frozen peas (no need to thaw, if frozen)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 head of fresh garlic & green stem, finely chopped
4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced
4 ripe tomatoes, pureed
1 tbsp tomato paste
1-2 cups boiling water
Salt and black pepper, to taste
½ cup dill, finely chopped
Step 1. Heat the olive oil in a pot and sauté onion until translucent and soft. Add garlic, carrots and peas, stir to combine.
Step 2. Season to taste and add tomato purée, paste and water. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Step 3. About 20 minutes into the cooking time, add the dill and mix.
If you prefer, you can add some potatoes to the peas, for a more filling dish. However, today I decided to extend our vegetarian feast by making some fava (φάβα). Favs is made from onion and yellow split peas and is a super easy dish to make - I love it's pretty warm yellow colour. In addition to a general vegetarian feast, fava is a great match for Horta (leafy greens) and small fried fish. I served the fava and pea stew with some slices of country style bread, rubbed liberally with garlic, feta and some kalamata olives.
70gr olive oil
1 medium red onion, chopped
250gr yellow split peas
1.5 litres of water
salt and pepper, to taste
1 small lemon, juiced
Capers & sliced red onion for garnish
Step 1. In a pot over medium heat, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the chopped onion. Season with salt and cook until the onion is translucent.
Step 2. Add the fava and water reduce to a very low heat and cook for 30 mins - 1 hour, stirring frequently ( add more water if the fava begins to thicken too much before being properly cooked).
Step 3. When the fava is cooked, remove from the heat and using a stick blender (after allow to cool slightly) blend to a smooth purée. Add the remaining olive oil and lemon juice while mixing and season to taste.
Step 4. Serve fava warm or cool, topped with red onion and capers. Drizzle with olive oil and some more lemon juice.
Athens Central Market, Varvakios Agora (Βαρβάκειος Αγορά)
Athinas & Evripidou, Omonia, Athens
Open: Monday to Saturday, 08:00 to around 18:00pm