Greek roasted leg of lamb - Kleftiko
This is a recipe requested by many of you friends out there: Kleftiko roasted leg of lamb. Judging from the number of requests, this must be one of the most popular Greek recipes abroad. :) Of course we do have our own version, which is traditional and authentic, without much fuss and without the need for too many ingredients.
This Easter, we published a recipe for Tsoureki, the traditional Greek Easter bread. However, this wasn’t the only thing that we baked during the celebrations. We also roasted slowly lamb, Kleftiko style. And we took the pictures in order to prepare this post for all of you that requested this.
During the Easter holidays we took the opportunity, as most Greeks do, to visit the countryside. Greece is really amazing during the spring, and if you’ve never been here in April or May, you’re really missing out. The nature is blossoming, the temperatures are warmer and the days are getting longer. So what would be better than visiting small villages and enjoying the breathtaking scenery? We loved walking in small footpaths, connecting forests to villages, meadows to serene –and empty- beaches.
Besides enjoying nature, we cooked a large variety of new recipes and tested some of our culinary ideas as well. You’ll be seeing the results of this in the near future, in some of our next posts. We baked our own bread with whole wheat farro(emmer) flour, we made our own pasta and the knowledge one gets from practicing with dough, is really priceless. There’s nothing like fresh, crusty bread that you make with your own hands, baking it at home.
As we mentioned though, one of the dishes that we cooked during the holidays was Kleftiko. The recipe for Kleftiko we are posting here is the authentic one, which means that it doesn’t include any veggies. It’s a recipe for a delicious, tender leg of lamb. You can serve this with a horiatiki Greek salad, lemon garlic roasted potatoes, tzatziki and fresh, crusty bread. The authentic version does not contain potatoes. After all, potatoes were not used in Greek cuisine until after the revolution of 1821 and Kleftiko is a much older recipe. Nowadays, people often add potatoes and/or peppers and/or cheese, like feta or kefalotyri in Kleftiko; the result is definitely richer. We suggest that you first try this basic recipe though and then move on and make it your own by adding your favorite ingredients in the dish.
Kleftiko, is derived from the word Klepht. Klephts were Greek anti-Ottoman insurgents, carrying on the war against the Ottomans throughout the years they had conquered Greece. Kpepht is literally the one who steals, named this way, because Klephts stole weapons and goods from the Ottoman authorities in order to continue their struggle against them.
They mostly lived in groups high in the mountains and in rural areas. Since they were evading the Ottoman army, they had to find ways to cook their food without being noticed. Their method of roasting the lamb took its name “Kleftiko” from them. The method was more less the following: first they were digging a shallow pit in the ground. Then they were lighting a fire, and as soon as enough burning charcoal was formed, they were placing the meat, covered in a package, on top. Then, they were covering everything (the package and the fire) with soil and rocks, in order to hide the smell and the smoke from the enemy and they were leaving the area.
This way, it was taking a lot of hours for the food to be cooked through, not unlike modern day slow cookers, but the result was very tender, juicy and delicious! So this method continues to this day, since it produces such excellent, tasty food. You can still find lamb cooked the traditional way, in the ground, in rural places in Crete and Central Greece. But most people of course, simply use parchment paper and their home ovens:) Another way to cook Kleftiko at home is using a clay pot or a Dutch oven.
In this post, we are using parchment paper, which is much closer to the original “package” idea for cooking the meat, back in the years of the struggle for Greek Independence. It’s really easy to replicate this and the lamb is falling-off –the bone tender.
Contrary to popular belief, Kleftiko -and lamb in general- is not something Greeks enjoy on a regular basis. Lamb and goat are mostly cooked around Easter, during celebrations and in special occasions. For instance, if there’s a religious festival in a village (panigiri) you certainly will find lamb or goat being served .So, Kleftiko is a special dish that’s not very often cooked in Greek households; but when it does, it’s much appreciated by everyone. Most of us have beautiful memories, growing up in Greek households, when in special occasions, the smell of lamb, slowly roasting in the oven for hours filled the air. To this day, this smell takes us back to these wonderful times!
In this recipe, the leg of lamb is cooked to the point that you can shred it with a fork. It will remind you of pulled pork and similar dishes. That’s the way lamb is cooked in Greece. You won’t find any medium or medium-rare lamb here. The lamb is cooked in wine, olive oil and lemon juice, with herbs and garlic for hours. And when you take a bite, it almost melts in your mouth!
- 1.5-2kg / 3.5-4.5lbs leg of lamb, on the bone*
- 4-5 garlic cloves, cut into slivers
- 1/2 fresh lemon, for rubbing the meat
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon dry thyme
- 1 sprig fresh rosemary
- 125ml (1/2 cup - 8 tablespoons) fresh lemon juice (about 2 lemons), for baking the lamb
- 80ml (1/3 cup - 6 tablespoons) extra virgin olive oil, for baking the lamb
- 125ml (1/2 cup - 8 tablespoons) white wine
*if too fatty you can ask your butcher to trim some of the fat, or you can remove some of it yourself with a sharp knife. Usually not necessary.
First, using the tip of a sharp knife (a boning knife is perfect for this), make small slits in the meat (like in pic. 1), both on top and bottom. Insert a sliver of garlic in each slit (pic. 2).
Rub the meat with the cut side of the lemon-half, squeezing it gently (pic. 3, pic. 4). Do this on both sides.
Drizzle with the olive oil (pic. 5) and brush or rub to coat. Season generously both sides with salt (pic. 6).
Add the pepper (pic. 7) and the thyme (pic. 8) on both sides.
Rub the seasoning, trying to spread it evenly (pic. 9). Place 4 large pieces of parchment paper in a roasting pan, forming a cross; or 6 pieces, forming a star. Place the meat in the center (pic. 10).
Add the rosemary leaves (pic. 11), squeeze the juice of the two lemons (the 125ml, pic. 12), and add the olive oil (the 80ml, pic. 13).
Finally, add the white wine (pic. 14). Wrap the meat in the parchment, as tightly as possible, creating a package (pic. 15). At this point, some of the juices may spill into the roasting pan. Don't worry, it happens sometimes. Make sure most of it is in the package you created though in case this happens.
Tie the package with kitchen string (pic. 16). At this point, you can refrigerate it for up to 1 day. This will allow the marinade to penetrate fully into the meat. Take it out of the fridge for 1 hour before baking. If you don’t have the time for marinating though, you can go ahead and bake it straight up.
Bake in preheated oven at 200C/390F (convection oven - fan assisted) for 30 minutes. Then lower to 180C/350F and continue baking for 2 hours.
Finally, remove from the oven, cut the parchment with kitchen scissors. Baste the lamb with the juices and place the pan back in the oven, for 30 more minutes, until browned.
Let it rest for a few minutes before serving. As mentioned before, serve with a horiatiki Greek salad, lemon garlic roasted potatoes, tzatziki and fresh, crusty bread. Pure Heaven!
1. As mentioned, this is the basic recipe for Kleftiko. You can add potatoes in the package, and bake them together with the lamb. You can also try it with peppers and onions, adding some feta or Kefalotyri as well in the last 30 minutes of baking (also try Pecorino if you can't find Kefalotyri). The result is amazing!
2. You can also omit the parchment paper, and bake this in a large, heavy Dutch oven or clay pot.
3. Kleftiko tastes much better if you let the meat in the marinade overnight and up to 1 day.