It’s a cold winter day and I’m dreaming of lamb. Not the dark red, full-flavored meat most Americans associate with leg of lamb or loin chops.
No, I’m dreaming about the sweet, tender, delicately flavored lamb with crackling crisp skin that shatters into a million buttery shards when you take a bite. I’m thinking about the sort of lamb I last ate with my friends Aglaia and Costas in Greece.
Aglaia Kremezi is one of Greece’s foremost cooking authorities and author of “The Foods of Greece” (Stewart, Tabori and Chang) and “The Foods of the Greek Islands” (Houghton Mifflin). Costas Moraitis is her husband, a biblical scholar turned epicurean and general partner in culinary crime. Together they live on the island of Kea in the Cyclades, where they run the cooking school Kea Artisanal. Oh, and they just happen to have introduced me to the best lamb I’ve ever tasted.
The Greeks make, perhaps, the best lamb on the planet. Other countries may dispute this claim, but if you’ve been to Greece, you know what I mean. They’ve certainly had practice. Greeks have been grilling lamb for thousands of years — possibly 9,000, if we are to believe archeologists who have found charred lamb bones at Neolithic settlement sites there. “The Iliad” abounds with stories laced with references to barbecuing and spit-roasting, often as gastro-religious preludes to marching into battle.
The best Greek lamb is reputed to come from the islands, particularly from Folegandros and Astypalaia. According to Aglaia, in the days before Easter, the ferries arriving from the islands to the mainland are packed with slaughtered lambs destined for impatient customers waiting in cars and taxis. We’re not talking neat plastic-wrapped, Styrofoam-backed packages here, but whole lambs with heads and feet.
So what makes Greek lamb so special? Well, for starters, it’s age. Greeks slaughter lambs at 6 months or less, when they’re still milk-fed or close to it. Those lambs that are grass-fed are often raised on a diet of wild greens and local herbs. Believe me, there’s nary a growth hormone in sight.
A typical Greek lamb weighs 20 to 25 pounds, but that’s 20 to 25 pounds of tenderness and exquisite flavor. American lambs are typically slaughtered at one year, by which time the meat is darker, tougher and much stronger-tasting.
How did lamb come to be associated with Easter and Passover? Here Costas, the biblical scholar, weighs in. As the Israelites were preparing to flee Egypt (Exodus 12:5-13), they were instructed to slaughter an unblemished lamb and mark the door posts of their houses with the blood. When the Angel of Death flew over Egypt, slaying the firstborn sons, he passed over the homes marked with blood. The Hebrews were spared the massacre. Sephardic Jews still eat lamb at Passover.
“Thus, from biblical times, lamb has been associated with deliverance from slavery and death and salvation,” Costas said. Christians liken Christ to God’s lamb, whose blood delivers his followers from sin. It didn’t hurt that lambs are by nature mild-mannered — the perfect Easter symbol for Christ, who advocated turning the other cheek.
Of course, there’s a more pragmatic reason why lamb was eaten in spring. That’s when the lambs conceived in summer and born in fall first reach eating size.
What’s the best way to eat lamb? Well, if you happen to be in Greece, any way you can: Roasted whole on a spit at a taverna in the town of Vari outside Athens.
Sliced into thin sheets that have been roasted on an ingenious vertical rotisserie and shaved off to make gyro, Greece’s ubiquitous fast food, which is served on pita. Souvlaki-style (shish kebab), grilled over charcoal and served with tzatziki (thick Greek yogurt with garlic and cucumber). In the form of paidakia, those tiny, crusty, amazingly tender Greek lamb chops, which are seasoned with nothing more elaborate than oregano and sea salt.
In many Greek villages, lamb is baked whole or in large sections in a communal wood-burning oven — sometimes stuffed with wild greens and cheese, other times with cinnamon, sultanas and rice.
There are any number of Greek lamb stews, such as the combination of lamb, fresh dill, romaine lettuce leaves and lemon juice my Greek aunt, Rosa Miller, used to serve.
Even the innards are prepared as kokoretsi, which is heart, lung, spleen and other unmentionables impaled on a spit, wrapped in lamb small intestines and spit-roasted over charcoal. (It tastes much better than it sounds.) Below you’ll find a recipe for village-style roast leg of lamb, courtesy of Aglaia and Costas.
I wish I could tell you that Greek lamb can be faithfully reproduced in the United States. It cannot. The animals are different. Their diet is different, and so is the age at which they’re processed.
If you’re lucky enough to live near a large Greek community (such as Astoria in Queens, N.Y.), you can approach the glory that is Greek lamb by buying it at a Greek butcher shop. Even if you don’t live near such a community, do not despair. An equal part of what makes Greek lamb Greek is the seasoning, which is simple but compelling combinations of sea salt, oregano and garlic that you can readily find.
Of course, the best thing would be to experience a traditional village lamb feast with Aglaia and Costas. Upcoming sessions at Kea Artisanal are scheduled for May 25 through June 2, June 23 through July 1 and Sept. 17 through 25. For information, visit www.keartisanal.com.
Roast leg of lamb with garlic and oregano
Traditionally, this lamb would be prepared in a wood-burning oven. Did someone say wood-burning? I’ve taken the liberty of adapting Aglaia’s recipe to the grill, but you can certainly use the oven if you don’t have a grill.
Oak chips, for cooking
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped garlic (about 6 cloves)
1 tablespoon dried oregano (preferably Greek)
1 tablespoon dried savory or thyme
2 teaspoons salt, plus salt for seasoning
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (a hot red pepper from Syria) or ½ to 1 teaspoon hot paprika
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus pepper for seasoning
½ cup Greek extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 bone-in leg of lamb (5 to 6 pounds)
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 bunch of rosemary to use as a basting brush
Roasted fingerling potatoes, zucchini, red bell peppers and garlic cloves, optional
Soak 1½ cups oak chips or chunks in water for 1 hour, drain.
To make the herb paste, mix together chopped garlic, oregano, savory or thyme, 2 teaspoons salt, Aleppo pepper or hot paprika, and 1 teaspoon black pepper in a small bowl. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil and stir to make a thick paste.
Place lamb in a roasting pan. Using the tip of a paring knife, make a dozen deep slits (each about 1-inch wide) in leg of lamb. Into each of these slits, place a spoonful of the garlic paste, pushing it in with your finger. Use about a third of the paste.
Add 2 tablespoons additional olive oil to remaining garlic paste. Spread half of this mixture over lamb on all sides. Marinate seasoned lamb in the refrigerator for at least 1 or as long as 6 hours — the longer, the richer the flavor.
Add remaining olive oil, lemon juice and wine to remaining garlic paste. Set mixture aside for basting.
Set up grill for indirect grilling and heat to high (about 400 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, toss wood chips on the mounds of coals and a foil drip pan in the center. If using a gas grill, place chips in smoker box or wrap in foil to make a smoker pouch. Poke holes in top of pouch with a skewer and place smoker pouch under grate over one of the burners.
Season leg of lamb on all sides with salt and pepper. Arrange lamb, fat side up, on grate over drip pan away from heat. Roast lamb until cooked to taste, about 1½ to 2 hours for medium-rare — Greeks tend to eat lamb cooked medium to medium-well. Start basting lamb with oil, lemon juice, wine mixture after 20 minutes, using a sprig of rosemary as a basting brush.
Continue basting every 20 minutes. Use an instant-read meat thermometer to check for doneness: medium-rare lamb will be about 145 degrees; medium lamb about 160 degrees. If there are any juices in the drip pan, you can spoon them over the lamb for serving. Serve with roasted fingerling potatoes, zucchini, red bell peppers and garlic cloves on the side, if desired.
Makes 6 servings.
Steven Raichlen (www.barbecuebible.com) is author 26 books, including “Barbecue Bible,” “How to Grill” and the new “Raichlen on Ribs” (Workman). His television show, “Barbecue University,” appears on PBS.