Easter greetings with a taste of the lamb-laden, custom-rich tables of Greece

March 30, 1994|By Susie Jacobs | Susie Jacobs,United Feature Syndicate

I lived on the island of Hydra in Greece for 15 years, and with the coming of each spring I felt the same awe and joy about Easter as the Greeks did. In the Orthodox Church, Easter is not an isolated event but the culmination of the festivities of Carnival and the long austerity of Lent.

Over the centuries, every community throughout the islands and the mainland has developed its own set of rituals that go hand in hand with a series of minor miracles performed in their kitchens.

By the time Holy Week arrives, everyone has new clothes (or at least a new pair of shoes) and the town has been resplendently whitewashed. The dead are well-remembered; their graves are cleaned and adorned with flowers. There is a real atmosphere of mourning.

The dietary rules tighten and most activities, except cleaning and Easter preparations, are prohibited. Some women weave flowers into beautiful covers for the coffins of Christ that will be carried in Good Friday's procession. Others are at home dyeing eggs a deep red and polishing them with olive oil. From kitchen windows waft lovely, lemon smells of Easter cookies and the cherry-yeasty aroma of tsoureki, the traditional Easter bread.

On Holy Saturday, preparations are made for that night's breaking of the fast, beginning with eating red-dyed eggs. That evening, all go to the dimly lighted church in their new clothes, carrying unlighted candles decorated with ribbons and flowers. At the point in the service that the Resurrection is proclaimed, everyone surges forward, lighting their candles from the remaining lighted candle in the church. The glowing candles are carried home to bless the house.

At home, the fast is symbolically broken with an egg-breaking contest. Everyone holds a red egg and tries to smash an opponent's egg without cracking his or her own. The one with the strongest egg will have good luck in the coming year.

On Sunday morning, the men are outside assembling their souvlas or spits and preparing the coals over which the whole lambs will roast. The women set out the salads, marinated fish, vegetable dishes, breads and cookies that complete the meal. It is a leisurely feast punctuated by laughter, dancing and plenty of retsina wine.

The menu that follows is a collection of dishes that capture the essence of the food served in Greece during the Easter season. Because few of us have access to a freshly killed lamb to spit-roast over an open pit, I have suggested a wonderful stuffed

leg of lamb.

Leg of lamb stuffed with pilaf

Serves 10, with lamb leftovers

Ask the butcher to partially bone the leg of lamb, removing the aitchbone, hip bone and leg center bone, but to leave the hindshank in place. The knobby end of the shank can be trimmed to make it more attractive. Make certain the butcher wraps the bones along with the meat; you will need them to make a broth for the pilaf. If you purchase a boned, butterflied leg, you can use canned chicken or beef stock in the pilaf.


2 tablespoons nonfat plain yogurt

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

salt & freshly ground black pepper

1 5-pound leg of lamb, partially boned and trimmed of fat (see recipe note)


3 tablespoons poppy seeds

1 tablespoon olive oil

3 large onions, finely chopped

3 cups bulgur

2/3 cup currants

1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme leaves

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

5 cups homemade lamb broth (recipe follows; add water if necessary to make 5 cups), heated

TO MARINATE LAMB: In a large shallow dish, stir together yogurt, oil, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Add lamb and turn to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 4 hours.

TO MAKE PILAF: Meanwhile, toast poppy seeds in a small, dry skillet over low heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a small dish and set aside. Heat oil in a Dutch oven (about 4-quart capacity) over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes.

Stir in bulgur, currants, thyme, salt, pepper and the reserved poppy seeds. Slowly pour in 1 cup of the hot broth and cook, stirring, until all the liquid has been absorbed. Repeat with enough of the remaining broth, adding it 1 cup at a time, until the bulgur is tender and fluffy. (You may not need all the broth.) Taste and adjust seasonings. Let cool completely. (The pilaf can ZTC prepared ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.)

TO STUFF AND ROAST LAMB: Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place the lamb, skin-side down, on a cutting board. Place about 2 cups of the pilaf down the center of the meat, where the bones were removed. Bring the edges together and secure with butcher's string. Set on a rack in a roasting pan. Transfer the remaining pilaf to a lightly oiled 2-quart casserole and set aside.

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