DISCLOSURE: I don’t condone stealing. There is just one instance, however, where I do pardon a certain 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 stolen goods. The meat was seasoned with oregano and thyme or even wild garlic, placed in an underground pit and covered with soil and branches on top to trap the aromas and the smoke while cooking. Doing so helped to avoid detection from their adversaries.
This sneaky style of cooking later became known as kleftiko—the food of the “klephts” or thieves. Over time, the method moved from underground pits to outdoor wood-fired ovens. These days, we make LAMB KLEFTIKO indoors, baked in any 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 perfectly seasoned with dried oregano (a Greek’s favorite weapon), fresh thyme sprigs, smoked paprika (to evoke a smoky flavor), and a good amount of garlic (like any dish should have). It’s like Christmas except you can open this present whenever you want.
With my lamb kleftiko (KLEF-ti-koh), 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 hearty slab of Kefalotyri or any hard Greek 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 is worth the wait—and worth stealing, too.
- 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 ounces 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
- Parchment String
- 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 in the lamb and insert slivers of garlic into the lamb.
- In a bowl, add potatoes, cheese, onions, tomatoes, oregano, paprika, olive oil, any leftover garlic 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 a 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, until tender. 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 10-15 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 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 or peas.
Cheese: Feta cheese, Graviera, Kasseri or any other hard Greek cheese
Cooking method: You can also bake lamb kleftiko in a covered casserole dish by simply adding all ingredients together under one roof. If you use more or less lamb, adjust cooking time. You won't need parchment paper in this case.