Roasted lamb key ingredient for Easter
By PATRICIA TALORICO, (Wilmington, Del.) News Journal
First published: Thursday, April 5, 2007
Because the Eastern Orthodox Church uses a slightly different
liturgical calendar, the Easter holiday is often later than most of
the rest of Christianity observes. But this year, Christians from
Orthodox churches whose faith is rooted in Eastern European, Greek
and Russian cultures, celebrate Easter, or Paschal, on the same day -- Sunday.
It's the perfect opportunity for non-Orthodox homes to discover the
fare of the Greek holiday.
Greek Easter dinner at John Eleutheriou's house involves patience and
more than a little bit of muscle.
For nearly five hours, the men and boys of his extended family stand
around glowing coals and take their turn turning and basting a
spit-roasted lamb that will be the centerpiece of the holiday table.
While many modern Greek-American families use electric-powered spits,
the Eleutheriou men still prefer the more traditional, hands-on approach.
"We do it the old-fashioned way -- with the hand crank," says
Eleutheriou, who owns Haldas Brothers Meats in Brandywine Hundred,
Del. "It's fun that way. It's a family tradition. Everybody takes a turn."
Greek Easter is the holiest of the Orthodox holidays, and, as in
other Christian traditions, it is also a celebration of spring. Food
is central to the festivities, but not all Greeks eat the same meal.
What is served varies from family to family and region to region.
Greek Easter marks the end of a period of abstinence from meat, eggs
and dairy products. Roasted lamb is the mainstay of the meal, as is
mageiritsa, a soup made from the innards of the lamb, and loaves of
tsoureki, a traditional braided holiday bread decorated with red-dyed eggs.
A typical buffet also can include stuffed grape leaves, cheese and
spinach pies made with flaky phyllo, roasted potatoes and fresh
salads. It's a meal that has remained relatively the same since ancient times.
Constantine "Costa" Dimas, owner of Costa's Grill & Wine Bar in
Wilmington, Del., celebrates Easter by slow-roasting lambs on spits
outside his Greek-inspired restaurant.
Roasting lamb has long been part of his life.
"We do it every Easter. I always looked forward to it, especially as
a child," says Dimas, 33. "You get up early in the morning and sit
with the lamb as it cooks."
The restaurant's executive chef, David L. Jones, makes a sumptuous
feast, open to the public, that usually includes homemade tsoureki;
tomato and cucumber salads; orzo with roasted tomatoes and feta
cheese; and smoked ham and cured sausages. And to honor his Russian
roots, Dimas also offers Russian-style dishes such as salata
Roussiki, a vegetable salad often made with caper mayonnaise; Russian
Easter cookies; and kulich, a Russian Easter bread.
Going whole lamb
At his Haldas Brothers butcher shop, Eleutheriou sells about an even
amount of ham and lamb to customers for their Easter feasts. Fillets
and pork roasts, while not as traditional, also are popular.
But Eleutheriou's family always goes for the whole lamb. The lambs
can weigh anywhere from 20 to 60 pounds.
A fire is started for the spit-roasting early Easter morning. The
lamb is rubbed with olive oil and lemon and seasoned with salt,
pepper, oregano and garlic, both outside and inside. Then it's
skewered with the souvla, or long, round, iron stick.
The spit is a family heirloom. "My father had it made," Eleutheriou
says. "Most Greeks have their own."
The roasting, which takes anywhere from four to five hours, becomes a
daylong social activity. Hunks of feta cheese, olives and stuffed
grape leaves are brought out -- and sometimes even a little ouzo.
Some family members -- there can be anywhere from 15 to 30 people at
a gathering -- walk outdoors and breathe in the aroma of roasting
meat, while others turn and baste the lamb.
"Everyone gets to pig out, there's so much food," Eleutheriou says.
EASTER BREAD (TSOUREKI)
The bread varies in shape and flavoring from family to family, but it
is always rich, sweet and decorated with dyed-red eggs.
1 1/2 cups milk, scaled and cooled to lukewarm
1 package active dry yeast
1 cup sugar
7 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon ground mahlepi (optional ingredient, a fragrant
aromatic available at a Greek or Mediterranean specialty store)
1 teaspoon mastic (aromatic available at a Greek or Mediterranean
specialty store) or substitute 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
4 large eggs, beaten until frothy
1 tablespoon coarsely grated orange zest (optional)
olive oil, for coating the dough and the baking sheets
1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tablespoon milk (for egg wash)
1/2 cup sliced almonds
4 to 6 dyed-red eggs (recipe follows)
Pour three-quarters cup of the milk into a bowl. Add the yeast, 1
tablespoon of the sugar and 1 cup of the flour and stir to mix. Set
aside in a warm place until lightly spongy all the way through, 30
minutes. Sift the remaining sugar, 5 cups of the flour and the salt
in a large mixing bowl. Add the mahlepi, if using, the mastic or the
vanilla extract, and the butter and briefly mix with your fingers.
Make a well into the center and pour in the beaten eggs, orange zest
(if using), yeast mixture and the remaining three-quarters cup milk.
Knead with your hands until you can gather the mixture into a ball.
Dust work surface with some of the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour.
Transfer the dough to the floured surface and knead, dusting the
surface with flour as needed, until the dough is smooth and elastic
and no longer sticky, 10 minutes. Lightly coat the dough ball with
oil and place it in a clean bowl. Cover with a cloth and set it aside
in a warm place to rise until the dough has doubled in bulk, about
two hours. Punch down the dough and transfer it to a lightly floured
surface. Knead the dough again for one minute, then divide it in half.
Cover the two portions with a cloth and let them rest until puffed up
again, 20 minutes. Divide one of the portions of dough into thirds.
With your hands, roll each third to form a rope about 20 inches long.
When you have three ropes, braid them together. Pinch the ends
together, tuck them under the braid and place the braid on a lightly
oiled baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining portion. Set the braids
aside, covered, in a warm place until doubled in bulk, about one
hour. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Brush each braid with the egg
wash. Press two or three red eggs into each braid and sprinkle the
almonds over the top. Bake until very golden on top and sides, 40 to
45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let rest on the baking sheets
for 30 minutes. Slice and serve warm. Makes two loaves.
Source: Susanna Hoffman's "The Olive and the Caper" (Workman, 2004, $19.95).
3 cups water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons red food coloring
4 to 6 eggs
Place the water in a saucepan just large enough to hold the eggs in
one layer and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the vinegar and red
food coloring. Reduce the heat to just below the boiling point, and
gently, one at a time, add as many eggs as will fit in one layer.
Cook for 15 minutes, adjusting the heat so the liquid simmers without
boiling. Then remove the pan from the heat and set the eggs aside to
cool in the liquid for at least 40 minutes. Lift the eggs out of the
liquid and pat dry on paper towels. Grease hands with olive oil and
rub the eggs to make them glossy. Use right away or store in the
refrigerator up to three days.
ROAST LAMB WITH LEMON POTATOES
For people unable or unwilling to spit-roast outdoors, this lamb dish
is a take on the traditional Greek Easter dinner.
3- to 4-pound leg of lamb
freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
4 pounds potatoes, peeled and quartered
2/3 whole head garlic, unpeeled
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the lamb in a large roasting
pan. Rub with half a lemon and sprinkle with salt, pepper and
oregano. Place the potatoes and garlic around the meat and salt them
lightly. Drizzle the olive oil over the meat and potatoes. Combine
the juice of the remaining lemons with the water and pour over the
potatoes. Roast for 2 to 2 1/2 hours or until the meat is tender. To
serve, allow to rest for 10 minutes, then carve onto plates and serve
withthe potatoes, garlic cloves and some of the roasting juices as gravy.
Makes six servings.
Source: Andy Harris' "Modern Greek" cookbook, (Chronicle Books, 2002, $22.95)
FENNEL AND CUCUMBER TZATZIKI
3 cups plain yogurt
1 fennel bulb, trimmed
1 seedless cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, center scraped out
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 scallions, including 1-inch green, thinly sliced
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill leaves
freshly ground black pepper to taste
Line a strainer with three layers of paper towels and set it over a
bowl. Pour the yogurt into the strainer and let it drain for three
hours in the refrigerator. Cut the fennel in half lengthwise and
remove the outer layer. Core and finely dice the bulb. Coarsely chop
half of the cucumber and finely dice the other half. Place the
drained yogurt, half the fennel, the coarsely chopped cucumber, and
the garlic and walnuts in a food processor. Pulse until combined, but
still a bit chunky. Gradually drizzle the olive oil in through the
feed tube, pulsing the machine on and off until combined. Transfer
the mixture to a bowl and fold in the scallions, dill and pepper. Add
the remaining chopped fennel and finely diced cucumber. Chill,
uncovered, in the refrigerator for up to an hour before serving.
Makes 3 1/2 cups.
Source: "Celebrate" by Sheila Lukins (Workman; 2003; $19.95).
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