One of the things I love most about my journey of discovery of Greek cooking is simply the variety of food used. The Greek motto when it comes to food is why buy it when you can either grow it - or forage it for free! There is no better time for foraging when it comes to spring - when there is an abundance of edible wild greens, herbs and shoots - just ripe for the picking. One of the rarer treats from the season are fresh, green almonds - picked before before the shell has hardened and the nut inside is still a little gelatinous capsule.
Fresh or green almonds are called tsagala (Τσάγαλα) in Greek and they are somewhat of an old fashioned food. My husband had never eaten these raw or otherwise, but my parents in law remember them being a real treat as children, where they would compete with other kids in the village to see how many they could pinch off their neighbours trees. I didn't need to pinch my stash of green almonds off my neighbours tree. He happily offered them for free - and I think thought I was quite mad when I said I was going to cook them!
While they make for good snacks, tsagala are also used in a variety of ways - you can simply eat them raw - whole, fuzzy green soft shell and all - or eat just kernel within. Eaten raw the kernel is mildly tart, with a grassy flavour but also has a sort of soft, fresh sweetness. Cooked, tsagala can be added to braised lamb or goat dishes (in the same way that wild greens would) and finished with avgolemono sauce. This is a big favourite in Crete and you can find the recipe (in Greek) here. They are also pickled and preserved - both in a savoury or sweet "spoon sweet" method. My mother in law suggested a few of the kernels are very good to add to preserved apricots or figs. I used my batch in another traditional, "main meal"kind of way - simmered with onions, tomatoes and peppers. The finished texture of the almonds in this dish was not unlike a cooked artichoke heart, but with a little touch of sourness.
Before cooking the green almonds, I used a small serrated knife to clean around the top of the green shell and remove the stem. These seasonal treats are only available for just a few short weeks in the springtime, so if you happen to live in Sydney - now is the time to buy them - or forage!
Green Almonds with tomatoes and peppers (Τσάγαλα γιαχνί)Ingredients
about 300g of green almonds, rinsed and drained
⅓ cup extra virgin Greek olive oil
1 large red onion, finely chopped
2 small red peppers, cut into thin slices
4 fresh tomatoes, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
A pinch of sugar, or to taste
1. Heat the olive oil in a medium pan and add the onion and cook until soft.
2. Add the peppers and continue to cook until soft.
3. Add the almonds and toss to coat in the oil and then add the chopped tomatoes and their juice.
4. Add a little water (to come about half way up to the almonds in the pan). Season with salt, pepper and add a little sugar if desired.
5. Cover with a piece of baking paper and then add the lid to the pan. Simmer over medium heat until the almonds are soft. You may wish to finish the dish with a squeeze of lemon and serve the dish alongside some rustic bread, feta cheese and olives.