Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Greek Orthodox Easter and Whole Roasted Lamb

In Greece, Easter is not Easter without lamb roasted on a spit. For many Greek families, the roasting of a whole lamb is a tradition that's carried out with great joy and celebration. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor those in a rush. It takes time and patience but the rewards at the end are scrumptious. After seven long weeks of fasting and dietary restrictions, families and friends gather on Greek Easter Sunday for a great feast, the highlight being the slow-roasted 'Arni Sti Souvla'. Every family has it's own idea on the best way to cook the Easter meal but in general the animal is spitted and cooked over an open charcoal bed for about 6 hours, until it is tender, juicy and falling off the bone. Constant turning of the 'souvla' is required so if the family is traditional and doesn't use an electric motor, having lots of friends around is essential, with everyone big or small having a turn rotating the spit.

For those who have grown up with the tradition of roasting a whole animal, they see it as a normal part of Easter festivities, but for newcomers the sight of an entire lamb and its intestine bound innards - the kokorestsi - the experience can be quite shocking. At the same time, one has to respect the tradition. For Greek families, Easter Sunday is always a very social occasion. Friends, family and neighbours are all be invited, with everyone turning up slowly throughout the morning and into the early afternoon, bringing plates of food, boxes of sweets and bottles of their favourite wine. Everyone takes turns at turning the souvla while sipping wine, enjoying delicious mezethes, chatting and helping out with preparations. Invited for our first Greek Easter this past Sunday, the lamb had already been roasting since early in the morning by top chefs David and son Noah, who quickly became mere apprentices once Mr. Marzokis, the family patriarch, arrived later in the day to cast his jaded culinary eye over the roast, poke a finger into the beast's belly and announce when it's done. Naturally, he's also in charge of carving the lamb with great knives and cleavers to the delight of everyone gathered to watch the spectacle. So great is the day, most people will linger on until early evening, not wanting the wonderful day to end.

The highlight of any Greek Easter feast is the roast – a whole lamb on a spit that has been cooked slowly for hours — along with lamb organs wrapped in cleaned intestines known as 'kokoretsi'

Once roasted for about 6 hours over hot coals, the lamb is removed from the 'souvla' or 'spit'  
and laid on an enormous chopping board

Using a very sharp knife and cleaver, the hot lamb is chopped into smaller portions 
and served with an array of traditional side dishes 

A festive occasion, Greek Easter brings together family, friends and the inquisitive younger generation who are destined to continue the culinary traditions of the 'old pros'

Not for the faint of heart, watching a whole lamb being roasted and carved can be an intense, 
overpowering and sometimes shocking experience

Serves 8

1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill
6 scallions, finely chopped
2 small leeks, finely chopped
3 lb frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed to remove excess liquid
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 -16 oz whole-milk ricotta cheese
6 oz feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
3 large eggs
1 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 package 12-by-17-inch sheets phyllo

Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the chopped dill, scallions, and leeks and cook, stirring, until the scallions and leeks are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until heated through and well combined, about 2 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the spinach mixture to a large bowl and refrigerate until cool, about 20 minutes. Add the ricotta, feta and Parmesan to the cooled spinach mixture, then lightly beat the 2 eggs and add to the spinach mixture, stirring to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Brush a 3-inch-deep, 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish with butter. Trim the phyllo to the size of pan. Working quickly and keeping all remaining phyllo covered with plastic wrap topped with a warm towel to keep moist, place one sheet of phyllo in the prepared baking dish and brush with butter; top with another sheet. Repeat the process until there are 10 sheets of phyllo in the baking dish, then pour the spinach mixture overtop. Top with another 10 layers of phyllo, tucking in the edges to seal and brushing with melted butter between each layer. Transfer to the refrigerator and chill until firm, about 15 to 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly beat the remaining egg and set aside.
Remove the spanakopita from the refrigerator and, using a sharp knife, gently cut through the top layer of phyllo to create eight 5-by-2 1/2-inch pieces. Brush with the beaten egg, transfer to the oven and bake until golden, about 45 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Zucchini Keftedes With Feta and Dill
Serves 12

1 1/3 lb medium zucchini, trimmed
1 tsp coarse kosher salt
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
3 tbsp chopped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
3 tbsp chopped fresh mint
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp finely grated lemon peel
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
1 large egg, beaten to blend
1 cup coarsely crumbled feta cheese
Canola oil, for frying
Plain Greek yogurt 

Grate the zucchini on the large holes of a box grater onto clean kitchen towel. Sprinkle the zucchini with 1 teaspoon coarse salt then let stand at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment or foil. Wrap the zucchini in towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Place the zucchini in medium bowl. Mix in the green onions, 3 tablespoons of chopped dill, mint, garlic, lemon peel, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Gently stir in the panko and egg, then the feta. Using 2 tablespoons of the zucchini mixture for each keftedes, shape the mixture into 1 1/2 to 2-inch-diameter patties, then place on the baking sheet and chill at least one hour. Note: This can be done 4 hours ahead, but keep chilled.

Pour enough canola oil into heavy large frying pan to reach depth of 1/4-inch and heat over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the keftedes to the pan and cook until golden and cooked through, about 3 to 4 minutes per side. Using a slotted metal spoon, transfer to paper towels. To serve, arrange the keftedes on a platter and top with dollop of yogurt and garnish with fresh dill. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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