It was late 1975 and I was on a mission to impress my Greek boyfriend by learning how to cook some of his national dishes. This wasn’t easy then, apart from the dearth of some vital ingredients, there was really only one cookbook available and also, at that point, I had never been to Greece. With the best intentions, my sister passed on a recipe for a Greek lamb casserole and I diligently copied it down into the back of my copy of ‘The Home Book of Greek Cookery’ – and there it still is. I think I probably cooked it once, maybe twice, but it wasn’t as authentic as I had hoped.
It starts off reasonably enough with trimmed, cubes of lamb, ‘sprinkled with lemon juice and salt’. The addition of onion and garlic is fine too. The use of thyme, cinnamon and rosemary is probably ok but mushrooms are not commonly used in Greece. It all starts to go really weird with the appearance of a tin of celery soup (condensed) on the list of ingredients. I can safely say that as my familiarity with Greek food has grown, I have never added a can of soup (condensed or otherwise) to any traditional Greek dish. But then, this was England and it was the mid-Seventies.
Some years later, on a bitterly cold but incredibly bright, winter’s day in northern Athens, we went for a spot of Sunday lunch. It was one of those long, leisurely taverna lunches and I vividly remember a rickety building, with steamy windows, heated by a wood-burning stove – its long, metal chimney snaking across the ceiling. The meal was one of lots of different winter dishes – perhaps plates of stuffed cabbage leaves, maybe some bulgur wheat, maybe some chickpeas, the most memorable though was a steaming bowl of fragrant, creamy greens and unctuous, tender lamb. That’s when the penny dropped and I realised what that recipe of lamb and condensed celery soup, albeit in a very Seventies’ way, was trying to recreate. It had, of course, meant to be ‘arnáki frikasé’.
You don’t need to be a great linguist to realise that fricassée is not a very Greek word. I imagine our old friend Nikos Tselementés, as part of his campaign to westernise Greek food, gave a pre-existing traditional dish a fancy European name. In classic French cuisine, fricassée is made by braising meat or poultry without browning the meat, adding some vegetables (usually mushrooms) and thickening the cooking juices with a white, roux sauce or heavy cream. So you can see how, if you wanted to rebrand a dish of braised lamb, leaf vegetables, fresh herbs, all finished with the very Greek egg and lemon sauce, you would give it the tag of ‘fricassée’.
Although it is one of the loveliest, most delicate of traditional casseroles, it is possibly the least photogenic ! Appearances aren’t everything though and with it you have a perfectly balanced, one-pot meal that combines a small amount of lamb with piles of braised lettuce or spinach; the creamy avgolémono sauce is a very light, low-fat alternative to cream. Combined with a side dish of boiled rice, it is one of my favourite meals for a cold winter’s day.
So this is the real Arnaki Frikasé and a can of celery soup (condensed) is definitely NOT required
For the casserole
500 – 700 gm trimmed, cubed leg of lamb
1 tablespoon of olive oil
400 gm washed spinach OR 2 romaine/cos lettuces OR a 400gm combination of spinach and lettuce (The lettuce should be shredded. If the spinach has small leaves they can be left whole, if they are large leaves they also need to be shredded.)
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 small leek, finely chopped
500 ml boiling water
A handful of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
A handful of dill, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of corn flour
2 spring onions, finely chopped
For the avgolémono
Juice of 1 lemon
Heat the olive oil in a metal casserole, add the pieces of lamb and gently seal them in the hot oil, turning the pieces so that they do not over cook. Remove them from the pan and set aside.
Add the chopped leek and onion to the casserole and soften in the oil. Return the meat to the pan and turn it in the softened leek and onion.
Add about 500ml of boiling water and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 1 hour, until the pieces of lamb are very tender. It may be necessary to add a bit more water as it cooks, you don’t want it to get too dry.
When the meat is cooked, add the chopped lettuce and/or spinach, the dill and parsley and allow to cook gently until the leaves have wilted. This takes about 15 – 20 minutes.
In a cup or small bowl mix the corn flour with a little cold water. Add about a tablespoonful of the cooking liquid from the casserole and mix it well. Now stir the thinned cornflour into the meat and vegetables in the pan and heat well, until the cooking liquid has thickened slightly. Add the finely chopped spring onions and remove the pan from the heat.
Now make the avgolemono. Break the eggs into a fairly large bowl and mix well with a whisk. Bit by bit, add small amounts of lemon juice, whisking in each one well, before adding the next.
Now start adding spoonfuls of the hot cooking liquid from the casserole a little at a time, whisking continuously. Do this with as much of the liquid as possible.
Now put the egg, lemon, cooking liquid mixture back into the casserole with the meat and vegetables. Check the seasoning and stir it gently and then allow it all to rest for a few minutes. If it does need re-heating, do this over a low heat so that the sauce doesn’t curdle.
Serve with boiled rice, and bread – slices of feta are also a nice accompaniment.