This past summer in Greece was full of many firsts: met new friends, tried some new dishes, new wines, visited parts of Greece for the very first time. One such place was Leonidio.
Leonidio is the town centered the region of Tsakonia, a major part of the the coastal area of the Prefecture of Arcadia. To get to Leonidio, one must drive from Athens, pass over the Straight of Corinth and into the Peloponnese. One drives through Nemea and on towards Nafplion and Argos. Soon after a heading due South will take you through twisting roads that hug the sea from high atop.
Getting to Leonidio is not the easiest but it’s well worth it. Elena of “Syntages tis Kardias” (Recipes From the Heart) extended an invitation to me to spend a few days with her family at her summer home in the elevated village of Pragmatefteis.
Anytime one meets someone new for the first time there’s a bit of trepidation but all that melted away in an instant. Elena’s husband picked up from the town’s bus station and took me to their summer home. Nerves melted away after hugs, kisses and quick jokes and laughter. These were “my people” and I knew the three days in the Leonidio area were going to be special.
Making the weekend into a party atmosphere was Maria, a co-contributor of “Synages tis Kardias”. Maria and her family also joined us for the weekend and have no fear…this home was ample enough for everyone to sleep in their own beds!
The first thing that struck me about Leonidio is the marriage of both mountain & sea. Elena’s home is at the top-end of Pragatefteis (which is already a village with some altitude – not attitude). The hot Greek sun bakes our bodies by day and the warm yet refreshing waters of the Argolic Gulf provide cooling comfort.
The first beach we visited was Porto Sabatiki. The area of Leonidio is known for two things…it’s dialect and it’s Tsakonikes eggplants (the long & thin sweet and seedless eggplant).
The beach of Sabatiki is given a Tsakonian name. In modern Greek, the translation is “san patai ekei” or “like going there”. This quaint bay with Greek tourists, pleasure boats and fishing caiques is very quiet, family oriented and just one taverna to serve the beach.
Specialties offered daily include fish, seafood, vegetarian (ladera) dishes, an array of mezedes all dependant on what’s local and what’s seasonal. The Tsakonian eggplant is on the menu everywhere!
This long, narrow sweet eggplant is grown all over Greece but the actual crop grown in this region is coveted all over Greece and shipped to markets at a premium. The valley in between the two rock faces that surround Leonidio houses several greenhouses that grow just the Tsakonian eggplant.
Main dishes with eggplant, side dishes with tomato, eggplant and peppers, spoon sweet made from eggplant, fried eggplant, grilled eggplant and pickled eggplant. The Tsakonian eggplant is cooked in every culinary way imaginable.
The folks in this region adore this eggplant. It’s earned the status of “appellation of origin” and there’s even a weekend festival (missed it by a week) that fetes this variety of eggplant.
I’ll leave you with my very own homage to the Tsakonian eggplant with this quick and easy pasta that’s filling and (like always) delicious. This recipe is a riff on a dish I found in Reader’s Digest.
Grilled vegetables (the Tsakonian eggplant as the star) get tossed in broad noodles or pasta, with cubes of Feta cheese and Greek basil. At the market, look for the long, narrow eggplants that are light purple with some white streaks.
Greek basil might be a little harder to find. One visit to a Greek church and you’ll find Greek basil plants or at the home of your Greek friends. The leaf is much smaller than the Genoa basil and it’s shaped more like a spear. It’s very sweet but in my opinion, stronger than other basils. A little goes a long way.
If you’re a grilling fanatic like us Canadians (yes, we even grill in the snow) you can grill your vegetables and toss them in your pasta or simply use your oven’s broiler to give you a similar affect.
The vegetables natural sweetness are pronounced after being grilled, most noticeably the eggplant and each twirl of pasta will catch a different vegetable and offering a slightly different taste!
Maria, Elena, Foti, Dimitri and the children, I dedicate this dish to all of you, your warm and hospitality. Leonidio will always be special for me.
Fettucine with Grilled Vegetables and Greek Basil
2 cups of zucchini, sliced into 1/2 inch rounds
2 cups of Tsakonian eggplant (the long, thin Japanese eggplant works well here)
1 red bell pepper, cut into wide strips
1 yellow pepper, cut into wide strips
1 red onion, cut into wedges
1 head of garlic, top sliced off
1/4 olive oil
1 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. fresh ground pepper
500gr. package of fettucine
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 cup of Feta cheese, cubed
extra-virgin olive oil to toss with pasta
1/2 cup of Greek basil, hand torn (or any fresh basil you can find)
- Pre-heat your broiler or gas grill on high. Toss your vegetables in the olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill your vegetables for about 4 minutes a side and reserve and keep warm. If using the oven, place your vegetables in a roasting pan and place 10 inches under the broiler and roast for about 20 minutes or until they take on a lightly charred colour. Reserve.
- Place a large pot of water on your stove-top and bring to a boil. Add sea salt and your pasta and cook as per package instructions. In the meantime, lightly toast your pine nuts in a small pan over medium heat until they take on a light brown colour. Set aside.
- When your pasta is cooked, drain and add the pasta back into the pot. Squeeze the roasted garlic out of the its skins and add the remaining vegetables, the cubes of Feta, pine nuts and Greek basil. Toss to well-incorporate and add some extra-virgin olive oil to dress the pasta. Adjust seasoning with salt and fresh ground pepper and serve immediately.
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