By John Kass
So, do you really want to learn how to roast a lamb over coals for Greek Orthodox Easter, the way it’s been done for thousands of years?
Ok. Sure. I’ll tell you. Because we’re friends. Am I not a river to my people? But first things first.
This is the Lord’s day. That’s the important thing. Easter for the Christians of the East is celebrated Sunday. Christians of the West celebrated last Sunday. Religious calendars and politics aside, there are three common themes–Faith, family and love. The rest is just food.
For some 10,000 years we’ve done this, before Christianity, before Judaism, Before the time of Father Abraham and the King of Ithaca we’ve roasted lamb outdoors. It’s been about much more than food. But I’m not your rabbi or your priest.
And there’s nothing like the leftovers. The next day you can make lamb avgolemono soup with good, real farm eggs. And slices of cold lamb from the fridge, with salt and pepper, mustard and raw onion make a killer sandwich.
The head is superbly tasty, the cheek meat is most tender, and there’s nothing like watching a good game on TV, with a bunch of green onions in your hand, a beer, and the silence of the cold lamb head. But there is a woman, known as “the neck that turns the head,” and she’s prohibited leftover roasted lamb head, wrapped in aluminum foil, in the fridge. The butcher takes it away by her decree.
Understand that if you’re the one roasting the lamb, it can sometimes be hot work. So please don’t stick your face or your hands into the glowing coals. It takes five to six hours, so your clothes will get smoky. And you’ll get dusty with charcoal ash. Don’t be a baby. That’s what showers are for.
As you can see from the photo above, I’m the short Greek in the middle, flanked by my two younger and taller and handsome brothers who just arrived, Pete in the blue shirt, and Nick in the black shirt. They’re clean, and shaven, with crisp clothing fit for a back-yard party. And I’m the messy fellow, dusty and smelling of smoke, with ashes on my cool “No Chumbolone” cap.
After five or so hours slow roasting on the coals, tending the fire—it’s really all about the fire– it was done. Then Betty made sure to tell me a million times not to mess up the bathroom, because of guests. I was careful, hustling quickly, and later apologized for leaving my socks on the bathroom floor.
Easter dinner was perfect, because we were all together.
There’s nothing so delicious as whole spring lamb spit roasted and slowly turned over coals, guests outside around the lamb and the fire trying to pull off a bit of skin to munch, everybody drinking ouzo and village wine, a crowd telling me I’m doing it wrong (they always tell me that because, well, Greeks) and cranking up our mountain music with the clarinets to shock the neighborhood.
And those husky mountain voices singing of the eagle flying, and the song of the 40 young braves, the Saranda Palikaria, marching off to rid the land of brutal oppressors.
Except for the electric motor, (because who wants to turn a crank for five hours?), it’s done the way my father and his father, Papou Yianni did it, the way our ancestors roasted their Easter lamb, including Sophianos the famous brigand, thief and hunter of Turks.
Sophianos, the wise one, died for the love of a beautiful girl in the mountains, outside Rizes, the finest village in the universe. You want to roast your lamb the way our cousins do it ? In the old country, in Rizes, Arcadia, Greece, which, in case you missed it, is the finest village in the known universe?
If you haven’t done it before, if you’re a rookie at this, I’ll gladly help start you on the way. And if you follow the simple rules, your friends and family will place crown of laurel leaves upon your humble head. You might even make it a tradition, and include your children in the cooking, so they’ll learn, too.
I’ll even give you the menu that we’re serving today at our house for family and friends who are coming over. And a trick that many Greeks don’t know. But they’re amazed when I tell them. And yeah, there is garlic in the lamb. Lemon, too. Are you surprised?
But know this, it’s not about the food alone. The food is secondary. Christ comes first. Easter is our most sacred religious holiday. And this is how we’ll greet each other over the coming 40 days.
Christos Anesti! Christ is Risen!
Alithos Anesti! Truly He is Risen!
Because that’s what this day is all about, Easter Sunday, the day of roast lamb to remind us of the great sacrifice of our Lord, the Lamb of God, the Paschal Lamb, the day when the Orthodox Christian world celebrates the most important religious holiday of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Greek word for Easter is Pascha. The Hebrew/Aramaic word for Passover is Pesach. Our Easter always comes after the Jewish Passover. And a belated Happy Passover to my Jewish friends.
Last week, as the Western Christian world celebrated Easter, I wrote that it’s all about Faith and Family and Love.
And this Sunday, it’s still the same, all about Faith and Family and Love.
So why isn’t Easter celebrated on the same day for the East and West? Politics.
If you don’t have time to prepare, and you want to learn, call your Serbian friends and invite yourself over and watch them. Or your Palestinian friends, or your Armenian friends. If you’re lucky one might be Carrie Nahabedian, a great chef who runs her Michelin starred restaurant Brindille. But when she cooks for her family for Easter, I’m sure there are a bunch of Armenians around her, telling her what to do. Because that’s what we do.
Or Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian friends. Ethiopians, too. And Greeks. There are more. All the Orthodox think of lamb on Easter.
You cook with people who know what they’re doing, you always learn something. A few years ago, I cooked lamb with Roman Catholic Croatians, not at Easter but on Aug. 15, a feast for the Virgin Mary for their church, St Jerome Croatian Catholic Church. They were experts. We cooked 40 or so lambs overnight in an ancient garage they called “the lamb motel.” Yes, it was hot. We were drinking but it wasn’t all water.
There were no meat thermometers. Experience and heat on their hand told them when the lamb was done.
But you don’t want to hear my stories. You want to roast lamb the old-school way. So, let’s get to it.
First, you need a whole lamb. Get it at the butcher shop and ask them to fix the whole lamb it to the spit. I use a spit with u-shaped clamps that come up from under the spine, around the spit, tightened down with wing nuts and plates. You don’t want the lamb to wobble.
Remember: Don’t forget the cotter pins so the spit will turn on the electric motor. I’ve forgotten. SO DON’T FORGET THE COTTER PINS!! Check the motor the day before. I’ve been using the same electric motor for 25 years, from master electrical genius Christos Lalopoulos and his son Adam, and it still works fine.
Keep the lamb cool overnight, in a basement, in a restaurant cooler if you have restaurant friend, then on Easter Sunday morning, around dawn, begin to prepare. It’ll take about four hours to get to room temperature. And another five or more hours to be well done.
In the cavity, you’ve put two or three hooftes of salt, coarse ground pepper, oregano, whole cloves of garlic and lemon. Eventually, the butcher’s twine stitching of the cavity may open some, later on in the cook, and some garlic may drop out. Put it on bread. It’s so tasty.
For the exterior, insert slivers of fresh garlic in the legs, breast, shoulders. Olive oil, then salt, pepper and rub whole lemon over the surface. DO NOT SET THE LAMB ON THE SPIT UNTIL THE COALS ARE READY.
Put the unlit coals down, not too much, you don’t need a giant pile. Look at the photos. You don’t want the coals more than a hand high. If you have a wind-break, use that. Use a chimney starter to get the coals going. Then set the spitted lamb in the grooves, making sure it turns. And begin.
Two hours at the highest setting farthest away from the coals below. Two hours in the middle. One hour closest to crisp the skin. The 2-2-1 method. That’s the Lalopoulos way. I’ve been doing it for years.
Keep the heat low and slow. You’re not in a race. Though you need to cook it through. The best thing would be if Jimmy Banakis and my sons and I would come over to your house to show you. But we can’t. It’s Easter.
You might need a stick to fend off cousins or others who’ll invariably reach to pull the skin for a taste. A couple of hard cracks on the wrists will prove you mean business. On occasion, as you’re swinging the stick and protecting the lamb from the pack of two-legged carnivores, you might get smoke in your eyes, but man up. Your guests are counting on you.
Let them get hungry. That’s the point.
Lamb. And Greek sausage grilled indirect at first, on a Weber Kettle, then browned directly over coals, but not too long. You don’t want to break the casings. You want the sausage to be juicy. Slice into bite-size chunks. Insert toothpicks.
I got the lamb from Casey’s Market, in Western Springs, not far from our former home. I’ve been getting our Easter Lamb there forever. The Greek sausage? This year it comes from Joseph’s Finest Meats, near Addison and Harlem, on the Northwest Side of Chicago. They’re the true sausage kings of Chicago.
Other home made sides: Salad, Spanakopita, Pastitsio, but you’ll have to ask Betty for her recipes. Oh, and the secret. She makes braised rice in chicken stock for one of the sides. On top of the rice, we put a healthy dollop of Muthawama, a fantastic Middle Eastern garlicy paste/sauce from Al Bawadi Grill in Bridgeview.
Not everything has to be Greek to be delicious. Muthawama is delicious.
Dessert I leave to you, but you might consider fresh fruit, coffee, and a piece of traditional Greek custard desert, my favorite, galaktoboureko.
And a fine maduro cigar.
Faith, family and love. We’re having both sides of the family over. My brother, his family. My mom, 92 and feisty as ever, will be there too. Betty’s sister and brother, too. Our sons girlfriends. Not a massive crowd as we’ve had before, but still a houseful.
And we’ll pray for those who aren’t with us. I’ll think of my late father.
I don’t really eat much at these things. I’m too full of smoke. But I very much like the feeling you get when you feed the people you love.
There is a special alone time for me on early Easter Sunday morning. I’ll think of what Christ did for all of us, and of the offer He made to all of humankind.
And then it’s time to put on the lamb. It begins turning. The mountain clarinets. The harsh voices of the old men singing our old mountain songs. Hours later, your guests, family and friends arrive. Days like this, my wife and sons with me and helping, with us all together, I know that I am truly blessed.
Happy Easter everyone!
(Copyright 2022 John Kass)