“Gastronomy begins in the (market) stalls” old saying
In the middle of Greek winter, and as we are bracing ourselves to elect or not elect a new President of the Greek Democracy (?), surrounded by a multitude of enemies and hostile elements, I reminisce about how good the vegetables are in my hometown, Marathon, Greece. This is a natural reaction from a psychological point of view. When you drown in your own blood and bodily fluids, you need an uplifting element to cheer you up. As the Monty Python song goes, “always look on the bright side of life”.
Most of the vegetables presented here are from Marathon. There are a few exceptions which will be noted. They are included because on the one hand they are important, and on the other hand it is always good to violate a rule, especially one that you have set.
Vegetables are presented first, and then a relevant dish, if available.
A reminder regarding Greek cuisine is due here. What I know as Greek cuisine belongs to the “pastoral” tradition. Simple food, prepared with few means and always with local ingredients. I am not – because I know nothing about it – talking about the cuisine of Ancient Greece, or the cuisine of Byzantium.
Cucumbers came to Greece from India, where it was known since 3000 BC.
Marathon’s cucumbers are very tasty. They are not as big as the cucumbers from the rearby area of Kalyvia Attika, but size is not everything. Their skin is so thin and soft that there is no reason the peel it off. Assuming that you know the producer and you know that they do not use substances that might make the skin harmful.
The tomato came to Europe from Central and South America on 1544 and to Greece on 1818.
Their taste and aroma of Marathon tomatoes is unsurpassable. My friend Michalis, the producer from whom I purchase most of the vegetables, has explained to me that it is the combination of two distinct factors that make the Marathon tomatoes unique. The soil and the water. As a matter of fact, the tomatoes growing on the slopes of the hills are more tasty than the tomatoes on the flatland.
Red radishes are super boosters of the body’s metabolism. We eat them raw, with a touch of salt. Nothing else.
Rumours that radishes are aphrodisiac have not been substantiated by scientific research. To be on the safe side, keep eating at least three or four red radishes prior to your main meal every day, and you might be the lucky winner! The important thing is to be ready when opportunity knocks.
Marathon beetroots are incredible. Not just the roots but also the leaves.
I boil the roots, slice them, season with chopped garlic, apple vinegar, salt and pepper. Absolutely delicious!
I blanch the leaves because they are very tender and serve with a lemon and olive oil dressing.
Zucchini have been in Greece since the ancient times.
What you see above are the “regular” zucchini, length up to 8 centimeters, diameter less than 1 centimeter.
What you see below is different. I woke up one morning and discovered in my garden a big zucchini.
Its length was 27 cm and it biggest diameter 10 cm.
I was curious to see how this abnormally big vegetable would taste.
The zucchini are so fresh and tasty that I prefer to eat them as fried sticks, either dressed with salt and pepper, or with a mild tzatziki dip (Greek yogurt, grated cucumber, squashed garlic, olive oil, salt). The “healthy” option is boiled, with olive oil and lemon.
My fried zucchini sticks are unbeatable. I accept bets and am willing to enter in any relevant competition in any country of the world.As it happened, the “giant” zucchini sticks tasted superb!
Zucchini flowers not only look beautiful, they taste great. The only secret is that they must be fresh, meaning that they have been collected in early morning, and you cook them for lunch. Always open them up to wash lightly, as various flying insects may have penetrated their soft shell.
There are two major ways of cooking the zucchini flowers. One is to stuff them with young white goat’s cheese with herbs and fry them, the other is to stuff them with rice and spices and then cook them in vegetable broth. I prefer the dish with the young white cheese, as it is an essay on softness and finesse.
And now we arive at the second of my produce – after the giant zucchini – eggplants! I love eggplants! As you see they are “black”.
The eggplant came to Greece in the 12th – 13th century AD from Arabia, through Byzantium.
There is nothing that can describe the aroma of the freshly cut eggplant. This is why I wash them and cook them as quickly as possible. This preserves the flavor and the richness of the taste.
The best way to cook a freshly cut eggplant is to grill it on charcoal, after you coat it in olive oil. If you have the technique, so that the eggplant is cooked but not burned, the result is amazing. The key thing is to slice it at least one centimeter thick.
In the market you can also find white ones, which are supposedly softer and without seeds. The only major difference that counts for me is the skin. The whites’ skin is not bitter. Other than that, I would not know the difference in a blind test where the skin has been removed.
Another variety, much more common in Greece, is “tsakonikes”, originating in the area of Leonidion on the Peloponnese, some 150 km south of Marathon.
These are the best for preparing one of the best dishes of the eastern Mediterranean, “imam bayildi“.
Here we come to the third of my produces of the summer, green bell peppers! What I wrote above about the aroma of a freshly cut eggplant holds also for the green pepper.
Peppers were imported into Europe from South America in late 15th – early 16th century. It is not known when they came to Greece.
Slicing and frying the freshly cut eggplants and peppers in virgin olive oil produces a simple meal, yet an unforgettable one.
My favourite green pepper dish is stuffed peppers with minced meat. I add pig’s skin (when I have it for extra flavour, oine kerners, raisins, and a touch of rice or bulgur wheat to absorb the liquids.
The bitterness and acidity of the pepper blend almost perfectly with the sweetness of the stuffing. It is a perfect dish for imperfect humans.
I now move a bit away from Marathon, some 200 kilometers north, to the island of Evoia, where my father was born. In one of my visits there my good cousin gave me green peas and artichokes. It was late spring.
The combined dish with potatoes (and the stems of the artichokes) is just wonderful. If you exclude the potatoes, this is a dish that the ancient Greeks might have enjoyed.
When you do not have artichokes, you can still prepare a wonderful dish with green peas, based on the “yahni” cooking style.The dish below I cooked with green peas from the area of Livanates, some 90 km northwest of Marathon, near the ancient town of Thebes.
Next come runner beans from Marathon.
They are so tender, that I eat them raw with salt. When I cook them, I prefer a “deconstructed” “yahni” dish. Instead of putting all the ingredinets in a pot, I assemble them after each undergoes processing separately.
The deconstructed dish is a delight.
String beans are my favourite, but they are quite tricky when you boil them.
Our last vegetable of the day is okra.
This baby okra came from Veroia, in the North of Greece near the burial area of King Philip, the father of Alexander the Great.
I cook it “yahni”, with onions, garlic, fresh tomatoes, chilli peppers and herbs. The okra is so tender, it melts in your mouth. Unforgettable experience.
Here our short journey ends. I hope to have been able to share with you dear visitor and reader some of the unique and distinct vegetables of MArathon and some other areas of Greece.