With Clean Monday or Καθαρή Δευτέρα, this week began the seven-week season of the Great Fast in Greece during which the devout eat nothing that contains or is derived from any creature through which blood flows. This means no meat, fish, dairy or eggs, and this includes sweets and pastries made with eggs or butter. (Shellfish, octopus and squid are fine as they are said to have no blood.)
One of my favorite fasting-friendly dishes is called fava, a misleading name as the dish is not made with fava beans but with yellow split peas. One of the world’s earliest cultivated food crops, split peas have been a staple in Greece since antiquity. And for good reason: They are small but nutritionally mighty, full of B vitamins, protein, isoflavones, soluble fiber and virtually no fat. Split peas are good for the heart, the digestive system and for preventing a slew of diseases, from diabetes to cancer. A variety of the pod fruit, Pisum sativum, or field pea, yellow split peas are part of the legume family.
In Siren Feasts, an excellent history of food and gastronomy in Greece, Andrew Dalby writes that split peas were cultivated in Greece as early as 6,000 BC. I’ve also read that vendors sold bowls of split pea soup from large, steaming vats on the stone-paved streets of ancient Athens. Today, the legume is still παντού (everywhere) in Greece, making frequent appearances on tables in tavernas and homes throughout the country, particularly during fasting times.
Although split peas are grown throughout much of Greece, the island of Santorini is perhaps most famous for their cultivation. Nourished by the island’s rich volcanic soils and naturally sun-dried, the yellow split peas of Santorini were included on the European Union’s list of “Protected Designation of Origin” foods because of their unique flavor and history.
1 cup dried yellow split peas, picked over, rinsed and drained
5 or more cups water, as needed
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Chopped red onions
Place the rinsed and drained peas in a large pot and cover with several inches of cold water. Bring to a boil on the stove top, and then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, skimming if necessary. As the peas cook, add water as needed to keep the peas covered. When the peas are completely disintegrated, remove from the heat.
Drain the cooked peas, reserving the cooking liquid. Mash the peas with a fork or blend in a food processor. Add olive oil (and a little of the cooking liquid if you prefer a thinner consistency), mashing or blending until the fava is smooth. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve, place the fava in a bowl, drizzle it with olive olive oil and top with any combination of the toppings above.
Kαλή όρεξη! (Good appetite!)