As I indicated last week when we posted Beef Stifado, we are big fans of Greek food in our house and when you think of the different herbs and spices the one that springs to mind the most is one of my favourite herbs of all time oregano. I love its aromatic flavour and use it in our cooking almost every day. We’ve chosen another massive family favourite for Sunday lunch today, lamb shanks. In honour of our nod to oregano, we are making Lamb Kleftiko, a Greek classic, where the lamb shanks a slow cooked in a parcel filled with herbs and vegetables. Interestingly Kleftiko is the Greek word for stolen. Legend has it that the recipe originates from a stolen sheep or goat that is cooked in a hole in the ground for several hours. The hole was disguised to prevent the thief being found out. Oregano is used in this dish and is one of the many flavours which makes the dish so delicious for me, so what of this beautifully versatile mediterranean wonder?
Oregano (Oreganum vulgate) is a perennial herb, that is native to warm, temperate regions in the Mediterranean and in western and southwestern Europe and Asia. It has purple flowers, which it carries in erect spikes and is sometimes known as wild marjoram. Despite the fact that it is a perennial, it often doesn’t survive the winter because it’s preference is for hot, dry conditions. To cultivate this herb successfully, it should be planted in the early spring, in full sun and relatively dry soil. Many different strains of oregano have been propagated over the years to increase the pungency and depth of flavour so oregano may differ significantly in taste according to where it is grown. The most notable subspecies is Origanum vulgare subspecies hirtum, known either as Italian or Greek Oregano, which is notable for its pungent and spicy aroma and it’s vigorousness. This subspecies is considered the best quality and flavour for culinary purposes.
Oregano is an exceptionally important culinary herb, used for its leaves, which are often more pungent when dried rather than fresh. It has an aromatic, warm and slightly astringent flavour, which varies in intensity according to the climactic conditions in which it is grown. It is known that climate, seasons and soil composition can all affect the aromatic oils present in the herb and so alter the flavour subtly. Oregano is the staple herb of Italian-American cuisine. Its popularity in the USA really took off after World War II, when returning soldiers brought back with them a taste for “the pizza herb”. The herb is particularly popular in southern Italy but is also a staple in the cuisines of Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Syria, the Philippines and Latin America. In Turkey and Greece it is used to flavour lamb and mutton and also used a great deal in salads, in the Philippines they use it to disguise the smell of water buffalo whilst being cooked, at the same time as giving the dish some flavour!
Oregano has been used as a medicine for centuries. Hippocrates recommended it for stomach and respiratory ailments and as an antiseptic. It is high in antioxidants, and has been shown to have an antimicrobial effect on Listeria. In traditional Austrian medicine it has been used both internally and externally to treat disorders of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts and the nervous system.
- 4 garlic cloves, cut in half
- The juice and zest of one lemon
- 150 ml olive oil
- ½ teaspoon oregano
- ½ teaspoon thyme
- sprig of rosemary
- salt and pepper
- 4 lamb shanks
- 3 carrots,thickly sliced
- 3 large potatoes, thickly sliced
- 1 large onion, finely sliced
- 3 medium tomatoes, chopped finely
- 8 sheets of greaseproof paper, cut into large squares.
- cooks string
24 hours before you need to cook your Kleftiko, marinade your lamb shanks. Firstly make incisions in the lamb and insert the garlic. Then place the lamb shanks in a very large freezer bag. In a bowl mix the dried herbs, lemon zest, juice and olive oil . Pour the mixture into the freezer bag and massage the lamb shanks for 8-10 minutes making sure the mixture is distributed evenly. Place in the fridge overnight so that the flavours have a chance to get to know each other. In the morning prepare the vegetables and remove the lamb from the fridge, place in a bowl and bring it back up to room temperature. Keep the marinade to add to the parcels later. Whilst waiting for the meat, cut the greaseproof paper into large squares, the should be just over double the size of one of the shanks. Preheat the oven to 160c/Gas mark 3
Place two pieces of greaseproof paper on top of each other and distribute the potato and carrot evenly between the four parcels. Place each of the lamb shanks on top of the vegetables and then pack the onion and tomato around each of them. This bit is a bit fiddly but do persevere because the results are spectacular. Pull each of the corners of the square into the centre and tie together using the bone from the lamb shank as anchorage. Just before you tie off the each of the parcels, pour in a bit of the reserved marinade to keep the meat moist during cooking. Leave in the centre of the oven for a minimum of two hours, then remove from the oven, allowing to rest for 20 minutes or so. To serve place each parcel on a plate and watch your guests open their parcels. We also like to serve steamed rice with this dish to soak up the delicious gravy.