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Vintage Cookbooks: Greek lamb dish hints of spring

Thursday, March 06, 2003

By Alice Demetrius Stock, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When March "comes in like a lion," and winter seems never-ending, I take comfort in recipes for spring lamb, especially those from a favorite in my collection, "The Art of Greek Cookery," a fund-raising effort by the Women of St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church, Hempstead, N.Y.

The Greeks have a long history of domesticating sheep. Food historians estimate that domestication began 3,000 years before Christ, and, since then, lamb has been the principal meat of Greek gastronomy.

During the 1960s, Americans traveled abroad in large numbers and thousands of them cruised the Mediterranean and Aegean, rediscovering Athens and the sunny isles of Greece.

For many, it was their first taste of authentic Greek dishes: egg-lemon soup; stuffed grape leaves; honey desserts such as baklava; and lamb prepared simply, but well-seasoned and in a variety of ways.

In this country, the ladies' auxiliaries of many Greek Orthodox Churches took advantage of the fact that so many returning American travelers wanted to prepare the same Greek dishes they had enjoyed abroad. Greek women began sharing their traditional recipes, some of whose origins "stretch back into antiquity," in fund-raising recipe books.

One such effort was "The Art of Greek Cookery," produced to benefit a new-church building campaign.

The recipes include lamb cooked with a pantheon of vegetables: artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, celery, dandelion greens, eggplant, escarole, fava beans, leeks, lettuce hearts, peas, spinach or zucchini. It is paired with potatoes, rice or orzo, a favorite Greek pasta shaped like melon seeds or grains of rice.

The lamb is oven-roasted or, when convenient, roasted whole outdoors on a spit, the favorite Greek way to celebrate holidays such as Easter. For everyday meals, Greeks, who use almost all of the animal -- heads, brains, liver -- cut it up for shish kebab, prepare it en casserole or fricasseed or oven-baked with cheese in foil packages, boiled for soup or ground as a savory stuffing for eggplant.

My own personal favorite over the years, lamb with string beans, is one I first tried when Crock-Pots were all the rage, but any large, heavy pot will do that permits long, slow cooking to bring out and blend the flavors.

Lamb With Fresh String Beans

We often serve rice pilaf with this dish. The rice recipe follows.

  • 3 pounds lean lamb shoulder
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 to 3 onions, chopped
  • 2 pounds fresh string beans
  • 1 cup tomato sauce (not paste)
  • 1 cup water
  • Fresh dill or parsley, chopped (we prefer dill)
  • Salt and pepper to taster

Cut the lamb into 3-inch cubes. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan or casserole, add meat and onions and brown well over moderate heat.

Remove the ends of the string beans and slit the beans lengthwise.

Add the tomato sauce, water, string beans, dill or parsley, salt and pepper to the meat.

Bring the mixture to a boil, cover tightly and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours or until the meat and beans are tender. Serves 6.

Rice Pilaf

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup raw rice
  • 2 to 2 1/4 cups boiling stock (we use 1 can condensed consom- me, a scant can of water and
  • 1 beef bouillon cube)
  • Salt to taste (about 1/2 to 1 tea- spoon)

Melt the butter in a heavy casserole. Add rice and saute over medium heat, stirring for about 3 minutes or until butter is bubbly.

Add the boiling stock (or the reconstituted soup with the dissolved bouillon cube) and salt, and stir.

Cover and simmer, without stirring, about 20 minutes, or until rice has absorbed all the liquid. Serves 4 to 6.

"The Art of Greek Cookery, " the Women of St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church, Hempstead, N.Y., 1963.

Alice Demetrius Stock can be reached at astock@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1601.

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