Monday, September 22, 2008

Tarpon Springs - Whirled Peas

Tarpon Springs, Florida, is one of my favorite places. I have a soft spot for it. It's where [The Man I Love] proposed to me.

This small city on the Gulf Coast of Florida became a destination for Greek immigrants in the 1880's, when they were hired to work as sponge divers. During the first half of the 20th century, the sponge industry in Florida earned millions of dollars. When a devastating red tide occurred, wiping out the sponge fisheries, Tarpon Springs residents shifted into the shrimping and fishing industries.

The sponge boats still embark from the docks along the Anclote River, but they have to go farther out to harvest natural sponges.

Today Tarpon Springs is a tourist destination. People come here to go fishing on charter boats, tour the nearby harbor, or wander the streets, eat Greek food and visit the shops.

We came here on a grey day in August, when Tropical Storm Fay was swirling her tendrils of rainstorms down into Pinellas County.

We strolled down the main drag of the tourist area by the docks, Dodecanese Street. The shops had sidewalk displays of popular souvenir items.

Celebrate Florida's reptile heritage!

I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Is it a bank?

Here's a lovely ladies T-shirt - what do you think? Tasteful, huh?

When the weather is nice, it's fun to take a tour boat out in the harbor, see the homes along the shore and listen to stories about the old days of the sponge fleets. But on this particular day, we were cold, and rain threatened, and we decided to go to our favorite Greek restaurant for lunch.

Now that I think of it, Greek food has played a big role in our marriage and relationship. When [The Man I Love] and I first met, one of our first real dates was to have dinner at a Seattle Mediterranean restaurant that overlooked Lake Union - we nibbled taramasalata and drank Retsina while courting and thinking about going to Seattle Mariners games.

And of course - it was here in Tarpon Springs that he proposed to me - and I accepted.

There are a lot of Greek restaurants in Tarpon Springs, and many of them are famous and large. We stumbled on the Mykonos, a little family restaurant several years ago, and were so impressed we always go back. It's a small place, and the staff is homey and welcoming.

On this occasion, we had a selection of 3 dips - baba ganoush, taramasalata, and hummus. They were served in cups of iceberg lettuce - isn't this a nice presentation?

One of my favorite memories of meals at Mykonos was a dinner I had once of Marithes Tiganites, or crispy little pan-fried smelts. The crunchy skin crumbled at first bite, and the white flesh of the fish was sweet and tender beneath.

But this time, I was interested in the specials. Today they were serving stuffed peppers and tomatoes - one of each. That's what I ordered. The dinners came with a choice of soup or salad, rice, potatoes or vegetable of the day.

"What's the vegetable of the day?" I asked.

"Peas," said the waitress. Peas? I didn't expect that. It wasn't the right season for fresh peas.

"Are they fresh peas?" I asked.

"Oh, no," she said, but then added, "but they're really, really good! Everyone likes them!"

Huh. Now - about peas. I love snow peas, and snap peas. I love them raw, and I love them lightly blanched. I even like frozen baby peas, nuked just a minute or two. But - canned peas are nauseating! What kind of restaurant serves NOT FRESH peas as the vegetable of the day?

But she said they were really good. So - why not try them? What's the worst that can happen?

Here's my meal. The pepper and the tomato, as you can see, are stuffed with a mixture of rice and seasoned ground meat - it was very good. And here are the peas - yucky green.

I tried a bite.

It was incredible. Do you remember the first time you ate - if you have eaten - southern-style slow-cooked greens? Maybe cooked with a chunk of salt pork, or fatback? Rich tasting, with a little earthy bitterness on the tongue? That's what these peas were like. They were well-cooked, and complex, with the onion and a deep flavor in the cooking juices - yet they still had that sweet flavor of peas. I couldn't tell - Were they frozen peas? Canned peas? I don't know but I have to tell you, they were a revelation to me!

I did a little research and I found a recipe for Arakas Lathero, or Greek-style peas. Peas, chopped onions, chopped red pepper, dill, and a bit of tomato paste, cooked with olive oil and water for 30 minutes. Some recipes add chopped carrot or diced potato.

All I can say is - if you go to Mykonos and they're serving peas - try them!

After we ate, we took another stroll down Dodecanese Street. At the Hellas Bakery, we stopped in and bought some pastries to take back to family in Tampa.

There were wonderful offerings of baklava, cakes, rice pudding and cookies. All delicious and tempting to the sweet-tooth.

But I am still remembering those sweet Greek-style peas.

5 comments:

Nihal said...

Glennis,

Greek food has its own characteristic flavor and there are many similar plates between our cuisines, Turkish and Greek. Baklava, ride pudding, musakka, salads, casseroles, cheese, tea, coffee... So many food names are the same what we use.

When I think of my roots from Thessaloniki, I love Greek people as they love food, and how they love to treat people. You're so right all delicious and a result of the essence of too close cultures.

When I was in FL I've not seen any Greek restaurant, sadly:( I should go back there, lol:)

As for the 1st year celebration on blogosphere, I organize a cocktail, a thrilling one I promise;) Would love to see you popping over because I-give-away:)

I'm grateful to have met you during my journey, and wish to continue w/ you all.

Have a great day.

~N

Liz said...

What a fantastic place. I love all the touristy/beach stuff for sale. I'm a sucker for that. And as far as the food goes, now I'm starving. That stuff looked incredible!

DaveyWaveyGoodAsGravy said...

Over the years, have you and [The Man You Love] ever ventured into the Sponge Diver's museum? I remember it being a combination of super low-tech diorama, mannequins, and almost spookhouse lighting... with the a gentle piped-in scent of squid.

KathyR said...

That mermaid looks like she thinks that dolphin is a Fender Stratocaster.

JCK said...

There is nothing like those beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. My mom has a place on a barrier island across from the small town of Apalachicola - up a bit from your special place.

Those peas sound amazing!