This dish screams of the many memories that vividly replay in my mind from my vacation in Greece this past summer. I started off in Thessaloniki (northern Greece) and settled in at my parents’ summer home in Halkidiki. Soon after, I embarked on my first foodie-related excursion by traveling a mere 6km to a neighboring town and visit the Kazakis family who specialize in jarring tender, delicious jarred grape vine leaves (and easy Dolamades for home preparation).
The next connection to grape vine leaves would be my visit to a taverna in the Plaka district of Athens called Hermion. Located on Pandrosou Street near central Plaka, the eatery serves up Greek classics, is tucked into a shaded alcove and you’ll find yourself seated amongst tourists and Athenians alike. If walking through the Plaka and Monastiraki districts, one should only go to establishments recommended by Athenians or Greeks in the know of Athens. I like Hermion. It offers a respite from the unforigiving heat, the menu has all the Greek classics (plus a gem or two on the menu), the service is prompt, both bathrooms and kitchen – immaculate. At Hermion, I ordered “Arni tou Ampelourgou”, which is also today’s featured recipe and…a recipe is also offered my k. Marianna.
I also visited three wineries this past summer, learning more about wine, hearing the story of generations of families producing wine and tasting the passion in each sip from bottle to bottle. The first winery I visited this year was near Kozani (northern Greece) in the historical, traditional town of Siatista. For Greeks from the province of Macedonia, Siatista holds a special significance as the freedom fighter Pavlos Melas died during battle during the Macedonian Struggle for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. You’ll be hearing more about Siatista in future blog posts but for now, I want to share the photo (below) from the Diamantis Winery which shows the old way that grape vines were maintained, in shallow clusters near the ground.
I also visited two other wineries but they too deserve their own spotlight, right? Today we’re going to cook up an exotic meal of boneless leg of lamb, stuffed with Kefalotyri cheese, roasted red peppers, garlic and herbs. The leg of lamb is tightly wrapped and bound by a layer of preserved vine leaves. This dish is served with Greek roast potatoes and a pan gravy made simply from the pan juices and roasted vegetables. This dish is by no means easy and nor it overly difficult. It’s a Sunday dish or a main course for special guests.
You will need some organization, some Greek pantry items and kitchen tools that most of have on hand. You will need roasted red peppers for the filling. You can buy the jarred variety of peppers but I prefer the kind I roast on my grill where the skins ge blistered, then I place them in a bag (or covered bowl) to sweat so that I may easily peel off the skins. Us Greeks call these red peppers “Piperies Florinis” and they figure big in my family’s dishes.
Kefalotyri cheese is another ingredient you will need to have on hand. Kefalotryi is a briny, firm sheep’s milk cheese that is often used for grating (to top pasta), can be made to made a Cheese Saganaki or it’s even served as a table cheese. If you can’t find Kefalotyri cheese (your Greek grocer will carry it), Romano Peccorino will work in a pinch.
Grape vine leaves are also needed to complete this dish. Our family picks and jars our own leaves each Spring but you will surely find this pantry item at a Greek, middle-eastern or Turkish marts in your neighborhood. The grape leaves are jarred in a brine and after they are rinsed and patted-dry, they are ready to work with.
You will also need a leg of lamb, boned (boneless). Ask your butcher to bone it for you as this is one of the more difficult cuts to handle. I live in Toronto, which is located in the province of Ontario. Our province boasts of having very flavourful but not too gamey lamb and goat. Us Greeks do enjoy our lamb and we prefer to eat local and that means Ontario lamb for us.
As always, I use the best olive oil in world…Greek olive oil and I’ve fallen in love with Acropolis Organics from Crete. You will need dried Greek oregano, some fresh thyme and rosemary, some sweet paprika, lemon juice, garlic, sea salt and fresh ground pepper. This dish celebrates many of Greece’s favourite ingredients and what’s better than to enjoy a Greek meal with some Greek wine? I’ve been enjoying this Boutari Agiorgitiko red, which is now available here in Ontario at many LCBO’s. Have your ingredients on hand and organized. The dish is a little involved but not limited to the more experienced cook in any way. The flavour of juicy, succulent lamb will transport you to Greece…perhaps to Hermion, tucked in the Plaka district of Athens or to the vintner’s table at one of Greece’s many wineries or better still…into the kitchen of a Greek home as a guest and recipient of world-renown hospitality.
The Vinegrower’s Lamb (Aρνι του Aμπελουργού)
1 boneless leg of lamb (about 3lbs.)
approx. 20-25 grape vine leaves (from a jar), rinsed and patted dry, stems removed
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 red wine
juice of 1/2 lemon
1 bay leaf
1 Tbsp. of fresh rosemary leaves
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3-4 roasted red peppers (seeds and stem removed)
3-4 sticks of Kefalotyri cheese, about 1/2 inch thick
(or Romano Pecorino cheese)
1 tsp. dried Greek oregano
2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
For the sauce
2 cups vegetable/chicken stock (+ 1 cup extra)
1/4 cup white wine
1 bay leaf
2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 medium onion, peeled and quartered
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. of fresh thyme leaves
- Rinse your leg of lamb and pat-dry. Use a meat mallet to even the thickness of the meat and set and place in a plastic bag along with the olive oil, red wine, lemon juice, bay leaves and rosemary. Squeeze the contents of the bag to make sure the marinade has blended and coated all the meat well. Place in the fridge for 2-4 hours.
- Take the lamb out of the bag and pat dry, reserve the marinade. Place a large piece of aluminum foil (shiny side up) on your work surface (enough to roll your leg of lamb in) and place your vine leaves on the foil, rib-side up and slightly overlapping each other. Season both sides of your meat with sea salt and fresh ground pepper, sprinkle the dried oregano and thyme over the meat and place it on top of the grape leaves with the inside of the leg facing up. Sprinkle the minced garlic over the entire area of the meat and place row of roasted red peppers along the length of the leg. Now place a row of Kefalotryi cheese sticks over the red peppers.
- Pull up the bottom end of the aluminum foil (grape leaves as well) and fold over to form your rolled, stuffed leg of lamb. Use your fingers to tuck the meat in to form a sealed roll and squeeze the foil around the meat. Twist the ends of the foil to tighten to foil around the lamb. Continue to roll the foil around the lamb, all the while squeezing the foil around the lamb. Again, twist the ends of the foil until taut and set aside.
- Place the carrots in your roasting pan and the quartered onions. Pour the reserved marinade into the pot along with the wine, bay leaves and enough stock to just come up to the carrots and place the foil-wrapped leg of lamb onto the carrots and onions. Arrange the vegetables so that act as a rack for the lamb. Transfer your roasting pan (uncovered) to your pre-heated 375F oven for 90 minutes. Add more stock to keep the vegetables just covered (but not the lamb).
- Remove the roasting pan from the oven and carefully unravel and open the foil to reveal the rolled lamb. Place back in the oven for 10 minutes so that the vine leaves crisp up. Transfer the lamb (plus roasted carrots & onions) to a platter and discard the bay leaves.
- Pour some reserved stock (or water) into the roasting pan and deglaze while scraping up the brown bits with a wooden spoon. Pass through a strainer and then transfer to a blender or food processor along with half of the roasted onions and carrots. Blend until smooth and if too thick, add some more stock and if too runny, add some more roasted vegetables. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper, fresh thyme, stir and keep warm.
- Carefully unwrap the foil and slice the lamb into thick medallions. Spoon some sauce onto each plate and place 2-3 medallions onto each serving. Serve with some Greek roasted potatoes and carrots and pair with a Boutari Agiorgitiko Red, an excellent accompaniment to red meats and sweet sauces.
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