A springtime remembrance of Greece: lamb and lots of garlic

Easter is the most celebrated holiday of the year in Greece, even more so than Christmas. Imagine Super Bowl Sunday, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.

With all this going for it, it's no wonder that Jaymie and Michael Chernoff, who lived and worked in Greece for two years in the early 1970s (first in Athens and later on the island of Syros), still vividly remember this holiday.

"Easter in Greece is the perfect spring festival," Ms. Chernoff says. "The landscape, the eggs, the sense of new life, and the shared spirit of celebration are so powerful."

Since returning to America, the Chernoffs have kept the memory of Greek Orthodox Easter alive by hosting a magnificent celebration for family and friends. They don't always revive the holiday on its precise date (May 5 this year), but they do honor its joyful, communal spirit each spring with Greek music, occasional dancing, and a bountiful spread of Greek Easter foods. I feel fortunate to be on the annual guest list, as Jaymie is my sister.

Before setting foot in their home, one can smell the garlic. Inside, the kitchen bustles with activity as dishes emerge from the oven and buffet tables fill up.

Food is central to the Greek Orthodox celebration, as prayer and fasting fill the 40 days of Lent, and it is especially off-limits to eat foods derived from an animal. Cooking begins on Easter Eve, with the making of maygeiritsa soup – innards of the Easter lamb made into a sausage in broth. This soup is consumed at midnight after a late-night church service, where the "Papa" (Greek Orthodox priest) proclaims "Christos Anesti!" (Christ is risen!) and the people respond triumphantly "Aletheia einai!" (He is indeed!)

On Easter, also called Lampri, meaning the brightest day of the year, Greek families gather for a traditional feast. In addition to a whole lamb slathered with garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice and roasted on a spit, it includes an assortment of meze (appetizers) such as tiny, mint-flavored meatballs, feta cheese, and kalamata olives, as well as such side dishes as spinach pies, cheese pies, roasted potatoes, octopus in oil, and salad made with crisp early lettuce or late cabbage. Dessert typically includes koulourakia (butter cookies twisted into various shapes) and pastries with honey and nuts.

As in Greece, so in America. Many of these same dishes, with the exception of the innard soup (thankfully) and the octopus in oil, appear on the Chernoffs' Greek Easter menu. Yes, even lamb cooked on a spit. After years of grilling butterflied leg of lamb, marinated in olive oil, lemon juice, a whopping 15 cloves of garlic (Greeks don't believe one can use "too much" garlic), salt and pepper, Michael decided last year to give the spit a whirl. And whirl he did. From dawn until afternoon, he never deserted his post, basting frequently with his same garlicky marinade.

The spit-roasting method lent authenticity, drama, and a high degree of festiveness to the occasion. And warm sunshine allowed for an outdoor feast, which felt casual and picniclike. But most guests agreed that Michael's method of cooking on his venerable gas grill still results in the most succulent leg of lamb.

Perhaps someday our family will travel to Greece for a truly authentic Greek Easter. But for now, the annual pilgrimage to Amherst, Mass., will continue to be a highlight of the year.

Easter Lamb with Michael's Marinade

1 leg of lamb (if grilling, it should be 3-1/2 to 4 pounds after boned and butterflied; if roasting, 5 to 6 pounds with bone in)

15 cloves garlic, slivered

1-1/2 cups extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

6 tablespoons dried oregano, preferably Greek

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 to 2-1/2 pounds small new potatoes, scrubbed, or medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and quartered (use only if roasting lamb)

With a small, sharp knife, make incisions all over the lamb. Put slivers of garlic into incisions. Mix next 5 ingredients in a bowl. Place lamb in large pan and pour marinade over it. Cover in foil and refrigerate 5 hours or overnight.

Bring to room temperature and prepare gas grill by oiling the grate and heating it to medium high, or, if roasting, preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

To grill, arrange lamb, outer side down, on the hot grate and grill, turning with tongs, until cooked to taste, 15 to 20 minutes per side. If the lamb starts to burn, lower heat to medium. Every 5 minutes, baste lamb with the marinade. After about 1 hour for rare meat (140 degrees F. when a meat thermometer is placed into thickest section), 1-1/2 hours for medium (160 degrees F.), or up to 2 hours for well done (170 degrees F.), transfer lamb to a cutting board and let stand for 10 minutes before slicing.

TO roast, place the leg of lamb fat side down in a roasting pan large enough to hold the potatoes in a single layer and roast (without potatoes) for 20 minutes. Turn meat, baste with the juices, reduce the oven to 375 degrees F., and roast for 35 minutes, basting every 10 to 15 minutes with the pan juices. If the pan dries out, add more olive oil and lemon juice.

Transfer lamb to a plate, add potatoes to the pan, coating them with the pan juices. Place the lamb on top of the potatoes and continue roasting, basting often, for another 30 minutes, or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the meat reaches 135 degrees F. Transfer the meat to a platter, cover with foil, and set aside. (Leave oven on.)

If pan juices are watery, transfer most of them to a saucepan and cook briefly to reduce. Meanwhile, return the pan to the oven and continue baking the potatoes until tender.

Turn oven to broil. Place the lamb on the potatoes again and broil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the surface is deep brown and crackling. Carve the lamb and serve, passing the pan juices in a sauceboat at the table.

Serves 6 to 8.

Roasted Eggplant Salad with Capers and Onions

Roasted eggplant spreads and salads come in many variations throughout Greece and are usually embellished with local flavor. In the north, yogurt is often added to the eggplants, for example. Throughout the Cyclades islands, it is the ubiquitous caper and tomato that season this delicious dish.

3 large eggplants, roasted

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Salt to taste

1 medium onion, finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup small capers, rinsed and drained

1 large firm, ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons red-wine vinegar, or more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Wash and pat dry the eggplants. Roast them whole over an open flame on top of the stove or under the broiler, turning, until the skins are charred on all sides. (This may also be done on a grill.) Remove and let cool slightly.

Have ready a large bowl with the olive oil. Cut the eggplants open lengthwise and remove as many of the seeds as possible. Scoop out the roasted eggplant pulp and place it in a bowl with the olive oil. Salt lightly. With a fork and knife, cut the eggplant so that it is chunky. Add the onion, garlic, capers, tomato, and parsley and mix with a fork to combine well. Add the vinegar and adjust the seasoning with additional salt, pepper, and vinegar if desired.

From 'The Glorious Foods of Greece,' by Diane Kochilas

Greek Easter Cookies (Koulourakia)

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 cup powdered sugar

1 egg

2 tablespoons milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

2-1/4 cups flour

1-1/4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon milk, for glaze

3 tablespoons sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Beat together butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg, milk, and vanilla, mixing well. Add flour, baking soda, and salt, mixing well after each addition. Working with rounded teaspoons of dough, use palms to roll each piece back and forth on a lightly floured surface until it forms a 6-inch rope. Bring ends together to form a hairpin shape, then gently twist 2 to 3 times. Lightly pinch ends together. Arrange 1 inch apart on greased baking sheets, brush with egg glaze, then sprinkle with sesame seeds. Bake 10 to 13 minutes or until golden. Cool on racks. Store airtight at room temperature for 2 weeks. Freeze for longer storage. Makes 54 cookies.

From 'The Joy of Cookies,' by Sharon Tyler Herbst

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