DISCLOSURE: I don’t condone stealing. There is just one instance, however, where I do pardon a group of thieves because their act of stealing eventually gave the world a glorious gift. The thieves I’m speaking of are the klephts, an indigenous population that descended from the Greeks who fled into the mountains to escape–and from which to fight–the Turkish occupiers of Ottoman Greece. The klephts snuck from the mountains to steal grazing lambs or goats, then retreated back to the mountains to cook their feast. The meat was seasoned with herbs, placed in an underground pit, and then sealed with piles of branches and embers on top to trap the aromas and the smoke while cooking. Doing so helped to avoid detection from the Turks.
This sneaky style of cooking later became known as LAMB KLEFTIKO. Over time, the method moved from underground pits to outdoor wood-fired ovens. These days, we make lamb kleftiko indoors, baked in any old conventional oven. The lamb is either assembled in a casserole dish or completely wrapped in aluminum foil or parchment paper.
The parchment paper method has become my go-to and results in a dramatic presentation when finished. Imagine sitting down for dinner and opening up a package of fall-off-the-bone lamb that’s seasoned perfectly with dried oregano (a Greek’s favorite weapon), thyme sprigs (if you have enough time, find fresh), smoked paprika (to evoke a smoky flavor like it came from the ground), and a good amount of garlic (like any dish should have). It’s like Christmas except you can have this Christmas whenever you want and no jolly man in a red suit is climbing down your chimney.
With my lamb kleftiko, I prefer to assemble individual portions for each guest, though you can go family style and wrap everything altogether. In each package, I surround a thick lamb shank with a serving of potatoes, tomatoes, and onions. To enrich the kleftiko, I’ll add a slab of Kefalotyri or any hard cheese that bursts with flavor. When you’re assembling the lamb kleftiko, be sure to bundle everything tightly in the parchment paper to seal in the juices. This undisputed classic has so much to give.
- 4 lamb shanks
- 8 cloves of garlic
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 pound baby potatoes, peeled and halved
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 2 medium tomatoes, cubed
- 6 oz Kefalotyri or Kasseri cheese, cubed
- 2 tablespoons dried oregano
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Juice of one lemon
- 8 sprigs of thyme
- Season each lamb shank with salt and pepper on all sides. Heat half of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Brown each shank for about 5 minutes, enough to get a good sear on each side. Transfer to a plate. Smash the garlic, discard the skins, and slice the garlic into slivers. Using a knife, pierce slits all over the lamb and insert slivers of garlic into the lamb.
- If you have any remaining garlic, add to a large bowl.
- In a bowl, add potatoes, cheese, onions, tomatoes, oregano, paprika, olive oil, and lemon juice. Be sure to season well. Toss to coat and set aside.
- Lay two long pieces (about 12” each) of parchment paper in a crisscross manner. Place the lamb shank in the middle of the parchment paper and assemble the vegetables around the lamb. Douse with olive oil. Add two sprigs of thyme on top the lamb and additional seasoning if desired. Do the same thing with the remaining lamb shanks, making four total parcels.
- Bring the flaps of the parchment paper to the middle, twist and tighten the paper to close. Secure the parcels with a piece of string or twine. Place the parcels on a baking sheet for cooking.
- Roast at 350 degrees for 1 ½ to 2 hours. The meat should be tender and ready for step two. Remove the kleftiko parcels from the oven, cut the top of the parchment paper to slightly open. Baste the lamb with the juices in the parcel. Increase the temperature to 400 degrees, and roast for another 15 minutes to allow the lamb and vegetables to brown on top.
- Remove from the oven and cut off the top of the parchment paper. Serve in parchment paper splendor or place on a serving platter.
Meat: You can also use a leg of lamb, cut into portions. Or, if you don’t like lamb, use goat or pork.
Vegetables: peppers, carrots
Cheese: feta cheese, Graviera or any other hard cheese
Cooking method: You can bake lamb kleftiko in a casserole dish and just add all ingredients together.