So, as promised, here’s one to upset the Greeks, as I desecrate another great culinary national treasure, or, as I prefer to think of it, take inspiration from another great culinary national treasure. Yeah I know. I’m doing it ALL WRONG, and how dare I? But I don’t care. I really don’t. And that’s not because I’m peculiarly dismissive of the sensibilities of the Greek people, or because I’ve got anything against them at all, any more than I have against the French or the Italians (which, I will say again, is NOT AT ALL). I would say that many of my best friends are Greek, but that would be a lie, although, when I spent a year living in Rome a (long) while back, many of my friends were (the Greek and the Spanish students being the ones who threw the most parties meaning that, as a foreign student in the capital of Italy, the people you most easily got to meet – and to get drunk enough with to lose your inhibitions about conversing in your still shoddy Italian – were mainly Greek and Spanish. Not so many actual Italians, and pretty much NO Romans, who already had their own social and family circles and therefore neither the need nor the inclination to make friends with a bunch of Brits/Greeks/Spaniards who were constantly babbling at each other in a drunken approximation of the language of Dante. I digress…). But I do have half Greek cousins, and I do love Greek food. The original Real Greek, on Hoxton Market, before it sold out to THE MAN, and became a chain, used to be one of my favourite restaurants, and I think wistfully of their chicken livers, and cured mackerel, to this day.
One thing I never had at the Real Greek, though, was kleftiko. Mainly because it didn’t feature on the mezedes menu, which is what we would generally be ordering from, but I don’t recall it appearing much, if at all, on the main menu either. Not really their kind of thing (although owner/founder/chef Theodore Kyriakou has a recipe here, but I have to say he uses a boned joint, and roasts it pretty hot and quick, which seems at least as wrong as anything I’m proposing). Just my kind of thing though.
Ah, kleftiko. Lamb slow cooked on the bone till it’s falling off and ready to fall apart in your mouth, densely flavoured with aromatic herbs and spices. Just thinking about it makes me want to eat it now, and if I do go to a Greek restaurant and see it on the menu, and the thought is put in my head, it’s very hard to order anything else. The first time I thought about doing it at home, I looked up recipes and, of course, in the way of bolognese, or risotto, or cassoulet, or any classic dish that is essentially peasant food in origin, I came across any number of variations and almost as many mutually incompatible claims of authenticity. Some cooked the meat dry, some wet, some included onions, carrots and potatoes (or some combination of all or any of the above). Some included cheese. Almost all, however, called for the construction of some kind of sealed parcel for cooking the meat in, made from folded layers of parchment paper or foil, which was the point at which they lost me.
That seemed like a lot of faff. I have a selection of cast iron casseroles with lids that fit pretty well – as they should, the amount I paid for them (actually, to be fair, mainly other people did. Most of them were gifts) - wouldn’t they do? Yes they would. Whether the result is strictly speaking kleftiko, or just mouth meltingly tender pot roasted lamb is open to debate, all I know for sure is that it tastes good.
You can use lamb shanks for this, as I have in the accompanying photos (allow one per person), or any bone in joint - but I would suggest leg rather than shoulder. The first, and probably most important, thing to do is marinate the meat well. Exactly what goes in to the marinade is up to you and what you have available, but I would suggest the essentials are lemon, garlic, olive oil and plenty of fresh oregano, thyme or rosemary (or combination of all or any), plus salt pepper and olive oil. Personally I would also include fresh chilli, a sprinkling of sumac and maybe star anise (although I might just add one of those to the pot come roasting time), if you wanted to add crushed fennel, cumin or coriander seeds I see absolutely no reason not to. Put the meat in a non metallic dish, lightly scoring the surface if it has a covering layer of fat or skin, generously salt and pepper it, grate the zest of a lemon or two over it, then add the juice, crush a clove or two of garlic over it (and chilli if you’re using that - when I’m marinading I always roughly chop a clove of garlic and a chilli and crush them together in the garlic crusher, the only time I ever use that device), throw on the herbs (and whatever else you want to add) and a little olive oil. Give it all a good rubbing in, then cover it and put it in the fridge for at least a few hours, preferably overnight.
Take the marinading meat out of the fridge early enough to return to room temperature before you start cooking, and at least four hours before you want to sit down to eat. Peel a bunch of shallots and some cloves of garlic (I’d normally allow at least five shallots and a couple of cloves per person, but you don’t have to, and substitute peeled and quartered onions for the shallots if you prefer). Preheat the oven to get it hot (around 220), with the casserole you’ll be using inside. Meanwhile, in a frying pan, brown the meat.
Take the hot casserole out of the oven, chuck in the shallots/onions/garlic cloves, with a splash of olive oil (not much), a grind of pepper and a pinch of salt, then add the browned meat. Pour over the remaining marinade and a glass of wine (red or white, it doesn’t really matter. Whatever you’ve got open). This is also where I might throw in a star anise. Put the lid firmly on the casserole and put it back in the oven and immediately turn it down low. How low depends on how low your oven reliably goes and how long you’ve got to cook it, and also how big the joint (or how many shanks), but generally 150 for 3 hours, or 130 for 4 should be in the right area. It doesn’t have to be too precise. This is not fine margin cooking.
Take it out of the oven about half an hour before serving and leave it to rest for 15-20 minutes with the lid on, then take the meat out and leave that to rest on it’s own on the carving board for another ten or so, before serving up (Even if you’ve used a leg or shoulder, it’s not really a question of carving, it will be falling apart, you should be able to literally spoon it off the bone and on to a plate). You might want to return the casserole to the heat to reduce the liquid in the pan or just reheat the shallot/onion/garlic, which should be just about broken down and velvety soft.
Serve the meat with the shallot/onion/garlic and the juices from the pan, and thyme or rosemary roast potatoes. Is it really kleftiko? Who really cares?