I think it’s well-established by now that an incredible amount of words in the English language are actually Greek. There are all those school subjects like geography and history (yes.. history). Then there are the ones that we don’t know that we know …wine, for example, and surgery. And of course, there are all the obvious ‘ology’ ones …zoology, geology, archaeology, etc. and all the phobias and manias too. So we all know far more Greek than we imagine. So what does kleptomania, that obsession with pinching stuff, have to do with one of the most well-known dishes in Greek cuisine?
In the centuries that Greece was part of the Ottoman Empire, groups of brigands and outlaws, known as Klefts (robbers) lived rugged existences in the remote, mountainous regions of the country. They developed a way of cooking lambs and goats (probably that they’d ‘borrowed’ from some local shepherd) by burying it in embers and leaving it for hours. Apparently, it was a way of roasting the meat without having to watch it, meaning that they could go off on brigand exploits and come back to a hot meal. So slow-cooked lamb became known as ‘kleftiko’– the robbers’ method.
There are all sorts of versions of ‘Kleftiko’ – some less authentic versions include all sorts of chopped vegetables…I have even seen one with ( heaven help us ) fresh pomegranate seeds! The basics though are quite simple… lamb, some lemon juice, salt, pepper, and a little olive oil. If you fancy, you can ring the changes by popping some slivers of garlic into slits made in the meat and adding some dried oregano too. Most recipes specify a leg of lamb, but personally, I like to use shoulder. The cooking needs to be long and slow.
There are three methods that you can use to cook the lamb – either wrap it tightly in greaseproof paper and tie it up like a parcel with butcher’s string. The other method is to put the piece of lamb in a casserole and seal the lid with foil and greaseproof paper. Or you can go full ‘kleftiko’ and seal the pot with a flour and water dough.
Over the years I’ve had a go at all three methods and have finally plumped for sealing the lid with paper and foil – it has the advantage that you can keep an eye on how the cooking is going. If you want to pop out for some briganding, you may prefer the other ways….
1.5 kg lamb leg or shoulder
Half a lemon
1 teaspoon of ground cumin
1 teaspoon salt
A couple of grinds of black pepper
A drizzle of olive oil
Greaseproof paper and foil.
You will need a low casserole pot – either ceramic or metal – with a well-fitting lid.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees (fan assisted).
Take your piece of lamb and rub it well with the piece of lemon. Then sprinkle over the olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper and massage it well into the meat.
If you want to add garlic, make a few tiny slits in the meat and push a garlic sliver into each one.
Put the meat into the casserole.
Now cut a piece of greaseproof paper, making sure that it is quite a bit larger than the lid of the casserole. Do the same with a piece of foil.
Now scrunch up the paper and put it under a running tap, scrunching it up again. Squeeze most of the water out. Carefully open up the sheet of paper and drape it over the pan with the meat in.
Next, place the foil over the paper and put the casserole lid on top. Press it down well to make sure it fits properly. Now roll up the foil and paper, pushing it into the gap between the pan side and the lid to form a seal.
Put the casserole in the hot oven. Leave it to cook for 45 minutes at 200 degrees, then turn the oven down to 165 degrees and cook for about 2 hours or so – the lamb needs to be soft and falling off the bone. About halfway through this 2 hours of cooking time, carefully lift off the lid, just to see how the meat is cooking. There should always bee a fair amount of meat juices in the pan – if it is starting to look dry (it shouldn’t !) Add a little water to the pan, replace the lid and cook for the rest of the time. Obviously, every oven is different – I have said 165 degrees for most of the cooking, you may need to have it a bit hotter or cooler depending on your oven. Fortunately, with this method, you can check to see how it’s going.
Once the cooking time is up, take off the lid and cook the lamb for about another 15 minutes or so, just to make sure it’s nice and brown.
Serve with roast potatoes, or my fragrant rice ‘stuffing’. A good dollop of tzatziki goes down a treat too.