The Olive and the Caper by Susanna Hoffman is a culinary travelogue of Greece, with classic Greek recipes like Leek, Potato and Olive Pie (Prassopita), Warm Greens (Horta), and Roasted Lamb Shanks with Garlic and Thyme.
The bottom of a leg of lamb, the shank, has some of the toughest meat on the animal. It is also some of the most flavorful. The cut is full of connective tissue and therefore requires a long, slow cooking method, such as braising or moist roasting. Then the glossy, rich meat on a well-cooked lamb shank falls from the bone. Any herb and spice thoroughly permeates the meat. Garlic succumbs into a soft, sweet pulp.
Oven braising mimics what a Greek country cook would do—slip the seasoned shank into a pan and then into a glowing beehive oven. Lacking an oven, the cook might give a few coins to the bread baker to make some room and roast the shank for her. By whichever method, the cook leaves the dish for hours, no attention needed, for her time is precious and her chores are many. Sound familiar?For the Lamb
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Place the lamb, garlic, thyme, cinnamon, coriander, salt, pepper, and wine in a lidded roasting pan or clay pot that is large enough to hold the meat in a tightly packed layer. Turn to mix the ingredients and coat the lamb. Cover the pan and roast for 1 hour.
3. Turn the shanks over and continue roasting, uncovered, until the meat is falling off the bones, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
4. Mix together the parsley, chives, and dill.
5. Transfer the shanks to a platter. Moisten them with some of the cooking juices, sprinkle with the herb mixture, and serve right away.
NOTE: If you're only serving four, prepare six shanks anyway and use the meat from the two extras in the Lamb Pie with Almonds, Raisins, Orange, and Mint (page 106 of the book).
It seems irreverent to say so, but not every locale in Greece provides a home for lamb. More likely goats, even donkeys, are the prevalent beast. The presence of lamb depends somewhat on the presence of herders. Where the soil is rich, intensive agriculture takes up every inch of land with little or no soil left for animal husbandry—unless, of course, some intrepid entrepreneur recognizes the rarity of and demand for meat in the area and, as a smart businessperson, fills the need. The island of Santorini, for instance, because it has rich volcanic soil, is a thoroughly agricultural island. Every scrap of turf is walled or terraced into a patchwork of fields, all of which are farmed. Animals are few because every inch is given over to crops.
The same is generally true of Santorini's sister island, tiny Therasia. On that sliver of land, there lived a poor and fieldless woman who saw that no one on her isle, or on the larger one opposite, had extra meat animals. So she took to keeping a small herd of goats and sheep—some ten or so goats, and two or three sheep. She found fodder by walking her sheep and goats down the rock paths and along the beaches, and sometimes trading meat for pasture with a family whose fields were temporarily abandoned. (Most of Therasia's men earned their keep at sea; often the place seemed an island of women.) I would travel over to Therasia every now and then to listen as she waxed nostalgic over the changing way of life.
After the earthquake of 1956 destroyed most of its houses, Santorini's residents had rebuilt their dwellings in the old style, but before they had time to finish painting them, the island became a tourist center and was acclaimed for its whitewashed houses. Santorini's houses were not whitewashed before. Like the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, and other temples of ancient Greece, the island houses were painted a merry rainbow of pastel colors—yellow, blue, green, pink. Some of Therasia's buildings still sport the old hues. The church is yellow, the inn where I stayed pink. There are blue houses, green ones, and some with two or more hues. As the herding woman had never been off her tiny island homeland, she was amused by the purpose of my visits, and I was delighted to see her well-tended animals kicking up dust on the pathways. I would accompany her as she rambled about the tiny island. We would share a cheese, some sea urchins, and bread with classic white tzatziki.
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This page created September 2007
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