Before Easter feast, time-honored soup is served

Orthodox Greeks mark end of Lenten period with `magiritsa,' a ritualistic dish featuring lamb

April 19, 2006|By CHRISTIANNA MCCAUSLAND | CHRISTIANNA MCCAUSLAND,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This Sunday, the Greek Orthodox community will celebrate its Easter with roast lamb, starches, vegetables, spinach pies, traditional breads, cheese and olives. But before the feast comes magiritsa.

Roughly translated, magiritsa (also spelled mayeritsa) means "little cook" or "little food" prepared to mark the end of the 40-day Lenten period, when many Greeks observe some form of fast.

They consume this egg-lemon soup with lamb to slowly introduce meat into the stomach. Typically, the Greek Easter service takes place Saturday night and the magiritsa is eaten afterward, sometimes as late as 2 a.m.

"Lamb is the most important meat in Greece and, in fact, in most Christian cultures in the Mediterranean because Christ is the lamb of God," says Clifford A. Wright, a food historian and author of A Mediterranean Feast, which traces the origins of the region's cuisines.

The ancient process of making magiritsa was ritualistic, he says. The whole lamb was used - even the head - and many family members helped with the cleaning and preparation of the organs. "In a traditional Greek home in Greece, one would likely find the mother, sisters and sisters-in-law, and other young women helping in its preparation," he says.

Mary Kariotis and Alice Ioannou teach Greek cooking classes at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Baltimore. On an early spring day, with the daffodils vibrant against the otherwise bleak landscape outside Ioannou's home in Hunt Valley, the two women gathered to make the time-honored soup.

"Traditionally, you were talking about village life in Greece," says Ioannou as she brings to a boil the lamb stock she prepared the previous day. "You'd kill a baby lamb and because it was village life, you'd use every part. Nothing would go to waste."

Nowadays, the intestines are replaced by cuts such as the lamb shoulder or shank bones that are more readily available. Ioannou cooked the parts in water with carrots, celery and onions and removed the excess fat before reheating the stock. "Lamb broth isn't something you can get from a bouillon cube or a container," Kariotis says.

While Kariotis picks the meat from the lamb bones used in the stock, Ioannou chops through a pile of vibrant green dill and large bunches of spring onion. Magiritsa uses ingredients that grow wild in Greece in the spring. The fresh dill - never dried - and spring onion should permeate the soup, the cooks say.

By the time Ioannou has added the green herbs and vegetables to the boiling stock, Kariotis has used two forks to shred the lamb from the bones into a pile of tender meat confetti. Rice is added to the broth and left to cook, leaving the two women free to work on the egg-lemon stage of the preparation.

Kariotis reams whole lemons over a strainer while Ioannou separates the eggs that will thicken the broth. While many a Greek cook will simply whip up the whole eggs to add to the soup, Ioannou prepares them the way she was taught and the way she thinks is still best: She whips the whites by hand with a whisk until extremely soft peaks form. Then she adds the yolks and whips again, creating a voluminous, pale-yellow froth. The fresh lemon juice is slowly added and Ioannou tastes the eggs, judging that a bit more lemon is necessary.

"I have to taste as I go," she says, "and I've never died from eating a raw egg."

The trickiest step of the soup process is now at hand: the tempering of the eggs. The stockpot is removed from the heat and, using a small bowl, Ioannou slowly ladles the soup into the egg mixture, beating it well with the whisk after each gentle addition.

She does this at least four times before judging that the eggs are as hot, if not hotter, than the soup, at which point it is safe to pour the egg mixture into what remains in the stockpot. The eggs should not cook or curdle in the soup.

A sprinkle of salt is added, along with several generous turns of the pepper mill. Kariotis stirs the bits of lamb into the soup, which is now creamy, fragrant and bright with spring colors - pale yellow and green.

The frothy eggs give the texture a noticeable lightness. The lemons offer a piquant flavor contrast with the mild little chunks of lamb.

If left to sit, the soup will thicken. It can be eaten this way or thinned with a little cold water. "That's it," says Ioannou, "that's the essence of making a good soup."

Magiritsa: Greek Easter Lamb Soup With Egg-Lemon Broth

Serves 6 to 8

BROTH:

2 pounds lamb shoulder, shank or neck bones, or a combination

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped

1 small onion, coarsely chopped

10 to 12 cups water

SOUP:

8 cups lamb broth (about 2 quarts)

1 pound lamb meat reserved from broth

2 bunches scallions, finely chopped

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill

3/4 cup uncooked long-grain white rice

salt and pepper to taste

2 large eggs (separated)

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (2 to 3 lemons)

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