I fell in love with lamb roast on my first trip to New Zealand. I was asked by a friend to help out with her Master’s student field research. She was under treatment for a recurrence of breast cancer and couldn’t manage the physical demands of SCUBA diving in the New Zealand winter. I could hardly manage winter diving in New Zealand but it was an opportunity to help a friend and see New Zealand for the first time.
I stayed with the family of the student I was helping out. One Sunday we returned from a long day of cold diving, to a proper Sunday leg of lamb roast. The mama had pulled together a classic Sunday meal and I gushed over how wonderful it was. The lamb was so tender and flavoursome. The sweetness of roasted vegetables complimented the lamb perfectly. Plus the gravy, well gravy after a winter’s day of diving re-warms you in a way that nothing else can. I was in heaven.
Later while doing the dishes, I asked her how she cooked the lamb. She looked at me as if I had asked her “How do you put your pants on?” replying that she “just whacked it in the oven.”. OK, so in a country where there are more sheep than people you’re bound to eat a lot of lamb. In America, not so much. The “whacking it in the oven” is probably in their DNA. Unfortunately I left New Zealand before I could get her to show me how to cook proper lamb roast.
Not long after I moved to Australia. As a single gal I didn’t really make a lot of roasts. I relied on dinner invites to fulfill my appetite for “whacking it in the oven” lamb roasts. Like New Zealand, this dish forms part of the culinary backbone of the countryside. I mean it’s not Australia Day if there’s no lamb. Lamb in some form appears on our weekly protein rotation because it’s plentiful and affordable. So there was no need for me to learn how to make it, as everyone else seemed to know how.
A decade later while Stuart and I were traveling in Greece, slow roasted lamb shoulder, Kleftiko, was a common constituent of mezze. Kleftiko means stolen in Greek. The types of Kleftiko are as varied as the islands themselves. They all share a common theme in that they are cooked with a technique designed to hide the fact that you stole some animal, have slaughtered it and are going to make a rip roaring good meal out of it.
Pirates, bandits, citizens oppressed by totalitarian conquers who wouldn’t let them raise animals and guerrilla fighters all employed the same method. They whacked the lamb or goat along with some herbs, wine and either tomatoes or lemons for acidity into a clay pot then sealing it into a fire pit for a day of slow roasting. The method was designed to prevent the detection of cooking food by concealing the presence of the fire and preventing any aromas from escaping that would lead someone to the area. It also gave them the rest of the day for their nefarious activities. It results in the most succulent lamb you will ever have.
Nowadays we just slow roast the lamb or goat shoulder in the oven. Many of us don’t have a clay pot so we substitute sealing the dish for cooking with aluminum foil. This is where Kleftiko may become a migraine trigger. At the very least it becomes filled with toxic levels of aluminum.
When cooking in aluminum foil, especially in the presence of a bit of acidity from tomatoes or lemons, you increase your daily aluminum intake to 10 times that recommended by the World Health Organization. The bio-processing of this huge hit of aluminum by the body results in the creation of excess nitric oxide which can trigger a migraine. Well it certainly did for Stuart.
It is not recommended for any of us to eat these huge amounts of aluminum. The bottom line from the study was that hot food should never touch aluminum foil. That’s not just during cooking, but the resting of the food too.
I don’t have a tight sealing clay pot. Instead I place a barrier of baking paper between the food and the aluminum foil. The results are the same without the addition of toxic levels of aluminum. Please, take the time to do this with anything you plan to cook using aluminum foil, including those foil roasting and cooking trays.
Lamb Shoulder Kleftiko Style
Whack it in the oven, fool proof lamb so tender you can cut it with a spoon.
Required skills: slicing vegetables without losing a finger; placing baking paper between food and aluminum foil.
The first trick to keeping this dish migraine trigger free is to first walk away from the rosemary. Seriously, put it down. Second is that the ancient technique using clay pots to cook all day. We’ll be replicating that with aluminum foil, but you need to make sure that the foil never, and I really mean never, touches the food. This method is great for goat as well.
Serve it up with some favas Santorini, Fasolakia aka green beans and tomatoes and lemon roasted potatoes to be magically transported to a mountain village taverna.
- Lamb shoulder big enough to feed your crowd, or maybe two
- 6-8 cloves of garlic, crushed and it’s ok to keep the papery skins on
- Bunch of oregano, thyme and/or marjoram; you can use one or all the herbs.
- 2 large ripe tomatoes or lemons cut into thick slices
- 1 large onion cut into thick slices
- Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
- Preservative free apple juice (replaces the wine in traditional recipes)
- Baking paper
- Aluminum foil
- Large roasting pan
- Preheat oven to 160C (325F)
- Line your baking tray with a very large sheet of baking paper. Be sure you have enough to fold over the shoulder like a parcel.
- Season the shoulder well with salt and pepper.
- Make a trivet for the meat to sit on using ⅔ the sliced onion, ⅓ the sliced tomato or lemon, ½ the crushed garlic and ½ the herbs. Drizzle well with EVOO.
- Nestle the lamb onto the trivett and top with remaining onions, herbs, garlic and then finally the tomatoes or lemon. Add a splash of apple juice to the bottom, about half a serve of wine. Give the top a good drizzle of EVOO.
- Wrap the baking paper around the meat. This should be a pretty tight package and be sure that the aluminum foil will not come in contact with the food.
- Place a second sheet of baking paper across the top of the package.
- Wrap the whole roasting tray in aluminum foil. It should be tightly sealed. Repeat so that there is a double layer of aluminum foil.
- Whack it in the oven and come back at the very least in 4 hours. If you have a large piece of lamb leave it longer. If anything leave it longer. I’ve left them as long as 6 hours.
- Remove from oven and allow to rest for at least 20 minutes.
- Crank the oven up to 200C (400F).
- 20 minutes before serving open the parcel by cutting through with scissors. Discard the aluminum foil.
- Open up the baking paper and scrape off the top layer of herbs, onions, tomatoes/lemons. Pour the liquid into a separation jug and allow to rest.
- Return the meat to the oven to brown the top. Keep an eye on it as you don’t want to burn it. It can take as little as 5 minutes and as long of 15. Less is more at this stage.
- You can make a gravy from the juices, just skim the fat off and thicken with a bit of flour or corn flour. Keep it migraine trigger free by not using Gravox or any other gravy makers. I prefer to just serve the juices as an au jus.
So, what ancient cooking technique is part of your repertoire?
Enjoy my friends.