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Psilakis Counters Clichés with His Interpretation of Greek Cooking

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Written by Sophia Markoulakis   
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
List of viewable recipes from "How to Roast a Lamb" by Michael Psilakis

ImageSome of the best cookbooks come from a very personal place, telling a story that only that author can tell. Dishes that emerge from that story are flavored with memories of place, family, and experiences. Cooks tell their stories best through their recipes, but acclaimed New York chef Michael Psilakis is the exception to this rule because before Psilakis used food as the vehicle for his self-expression, he used the written word. Maybe this is why his first cookbook, How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking is such a good read.

Having grown up in a similar Greek-American household, where food was the center of every activity, I immediately connected with the Psilakis family. Chapters in the book reflect different periods of the family's life and the food they served, with many recipes paying tribute to Psilakis's late father who had a profound affect on him.

ImageEarly chapters such as My Father's Garden and Open Water introduce the complicated relationship between Greek father and first-born son, all the while showcasing lighter recipes such as Wild Bitter Greens, Roasted Peppers, Grilled Onion, Oil-Marinated Dried Tomato and Kefalotiri and Cretan Spiced Tuna with Bulgur Salad. Other chapters capture the essence of Greek cooking with stories and recipes surrounding hunting, birthday dinners, and Orthodox Easter rituals and celebrations. Both recipes features in this review, Roasted Leg of Lamb and Pheasant with Spaghetti, are elevated versions of classic Greek home cooking that Psilakis does so well.

The chapter entitled Kefi (dance), was of particular interest since I too spent my teenage years participating in Greek dance competitions, feeling the same cultural pride when I donned my traditional costume. To a Cretan, there is no purer form of expression than dancing solo to the rhythmic guttural tones of the ancient lyra, enraptured by the pulse of the music, the attention of the audience, and the intoxicating effect of ouzo or Metaxa. Classic meze or appetizers are covered in the Kefi chapter including dips like Melitzanosalata (Eggplant Spread) and Tsatziki (Cucumber-Yogurt Dip).

All chapters leading up to the last offer recipes that could easily be found at Psilakis's Manhattan restaurant Kefi. Clean, honest Greek dishes depicting the integrity of the cuisine, removing many of the clichés that for too long have hindered it from greater acceptance and praise. The last chapter takes a leap just like Psilakis does with his other Manhattan restaurant, Anthos. Anthos is Psilakis's attempt to reach people on sensual and cerebral level, and the restaurant provides a platform for him to explore Greek cuisine on a deeper level. The recipes in this chapter are challenging and extremely involved, but true to how Psilakis sees the world of Greek haute cuisine today and are exactly what you would find on his Anthos menu.

Several of the recipes I tried in the cookbook were delicious and multi-layered with flavors, requiring separate steps that might put some off. But don't be because the finished product will be more pure than what you would find in most Greek restaurants that dot our restaurant landscape today. And the stories that lead each chapter are personal and heartfelt (and sometimes heart breaking), leaving much food for thought.

Roasted Leg of Lamb

From How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis, Little, Brown and Company 2009.

SERVES 6, OR MORE FAMILY-STYLE

Butterflying the lamb gives you options that you don't have with a bone. A good butcher will be happy to do this for you. Here, I've made a very flavorful stuffing from sun-dried tomatoes, which looks great when you carve the roast. Normally, I don't see the point of mincing herbs, but rosemary, with its woody sprigs, is hard to eat. If you're using it only as a flavoring agent, you can just pull the sprigs out at the end, but if you want to eat it-and lamb loves rosemary-it has to be very finely chopped.

FOR THE STUFFING
  • 1 1/2 cups large, plump sun-dried tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted
  • 1 teaspoon minced rosemary
  • Leaves only from 3 small sprigs thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dry Greek oregano
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 15 cloves Garlic Confit (see below) or
  • 1/3 cup Garlic Purée (see below), if you have it
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • About 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

FOR THE LAMB
  • 3 to 3 1/2 pound boneless leg of lamb, butterflied to flatten, some of the fat
  • trimmed off
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon Garlic Purée, or 2 to 3 cloves Garlic Confit, if you have it
  • 3 large sprigs rosemary
  • 3 tablespoons blended oil (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive)

In a food processor, combine all of the ingredients for the stuffing and purée to a smooth, thick paste, about 45 to 60 seconds. Reserve about 2 tablespoons of the stuffing.

Lay the lamb out on a work surface with the fattier side down. Season generously with kosher salt and pepper and spread an even layer of stuffing over it, pressing the stuffing down into the crevices. Drizzle with a little olive oil and roll the lamb up in a spiral, seasoning the fatty side with salt and pepper as you roll. Tie in 3 or 4 places crosswise and 1 or 2 places lengthwise (twist the string around itself 3 times instead of just once before you pull it tight, so it won't loosen as soon as you let go). Ideally, allow the meat to sit on a rack, uncovered, in the refrigerator overnight, to dry the surface well and develop all the Greek flavors.

Bring the lamb to room temperature while you preheat the oven to 375°F. In a small roasting pan, whisk the reserved stuffing with the water, mustard, and Garlic Purée. Throw in the rosemary sprigs. Place a rack in the pan; the rack should not touch the liquid.

Again, season the lamb on all sides very generously with kosher salt and pepper. In a large, heavy skillet, warm the oil over medium-high heat. When the oil is very hot, sear the lamb well on all sides, using tongs and leaning the meat up against the sides of the pan to sear the thinner sides and cut ends. Transfer the lamb to the rack seam-side up and roast for about 1 hour, basting every 15 minutes with the pan liquid. (When the meat is medium-rare-140°F-a skewer inserted at the thickest point should feel warm when pressed against your lower lip.)

Rest the meat for about 15 minutes. Slice 1/4-inch-thick pieces, drizzle with the pan sauce, and finish with a little extra-virgin olive oil.

Optional: Peel and cut a few potatoes into rough wedges, toss with a little olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and throw in the roasting pan.

Note: To butterfly a piece of boneless lamb from the leg, lay the piece out "at, fattyside down. Make 8 to 10 shallow cuts in the thicker parts, then open them out like a book and press flat. Your goal is a relatively flat surface, but don't worry if it's a little uneven-it will be concealed inside, with the stuffing.

Garlic Confit

From How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis, Little, Brown and Company 2009.

MAKES 3 CUPS

If you get nothing else out of this book, you are going to thank me for this recipe. If you like Italian food-if you like my food-you will want to keep this confit on hand. You can keep it in the refrigerator for weeks, and the oil will add another level of flavor to Ladolemono or any of the vinaigrettes in this book. Always save the confit oil from any of my vegetable confits for another use, such as in a vinaigrette or for drizzling over a finished dish. If you have access to peeled garlic cloves, this confit makes itself.

  • 3 cups garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 fresh bay leaf or 2 dried leaves
  • 8 to 10 sprigs fresh thyme
  • Kosher salt and whole black peppercorns
  • About 2 cups blended oil (50 percent canola, 50 percent extra-virgin olive), as needed

Put the garlic cloves in a heavy, covered braising pan or Dutch oven. Add the bay leaf and thyme, a scant tablespoon kosher salt, and 15 or 20 black peppercorns. Barely cover with the oil.

Cover the pan and braise in a 300°F oven until the cloves are pale golden and very tender, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cool it to room temperature.

Transfer the garlic and all of the oil to a sterilized jar. Press a square of plastic wrap down directly onto the surface of the oil. Place another square of plastic over the rim of the jar and twist on the lid or secure with a rubber band. With every use, replace the square of plastic that touches the oil and use a perfectly clean fork or tongs each time to prevent cross-contamination from other surfaces in your kitchen. As long as the cloves and Garlic Purée, below, are covered with oil, they will last for at least 3 weeks in the refrigerator.

Garlic Purée

From How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis, Little, Brown and Company 2009.

MAKES ABOUT 3/4 CUP

Substitute this purée for butter to finish and emulsify pan sauces, in addition to countless other uses. You can even substitute store-bought caramelized garlic for the Garlic Confit.

  • About 1 cup cloves garlic from Garlic Confit (above)


With a slotted spoon, transfer the garlic cloves to a cutting board, allowing all of the oil to drain back into the container. Chop the garlic fine (or purée it in a mini food processor).

Fill with confit oil and store in the refrigerator.

Pheasant with Spaghetti

From How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis, Little, Brown and Company 2009.

SERVES 4 TO 8 FAMILY-STYLE

In all my restaurants, I constantly observe the plates returning from the dining room. A clean plate is the only acceptable result. To me, the definition of food greatness is when a dish is so good that you want to continue eating it after you have become satiated. It's so European in mentality, but it means that you just can't stop because you don't know if you'll ever find that food bliss again. If plates come back unfinished, then we failed to reach that greatness.
This dish says "home" to me; it's home-style Greek cooking at its very best. Serve up a platter, and your friends won't be able to keep their hands off it. You can also make this dish with chicken or any other poultry or game bird.

  • 1 pheasant, 2 1/2 to 3 3/4 pounds, cut into breast-wing and leg-thigh pieces; backbone cut into 3 pieces
  • Kosher salt and cracked black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons blended oil (90 percent canola, 10 percent extra-virgin olive)
  • 4 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/2 Spanish or sweet onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 small carrot, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
  • 3 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 cup red wine
  • 4 large sprigs thyme
  • 2 large sprigs sage
  • 1 large sprig rosemary
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons dry Greek oregano
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 1 pound dried spaghetti
  • 12 dried dates, pitted and quartered lengthwise
  • 1/3 cup yellow raisins
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts
  • 1/4 cup torn fresh herbs, such as dill, mint, and/or parsley
  • Extra-virgin olive oil

Rinse the pheasant pieces in cold water and pat dry. Season all sides liberally with kosher salt and pepper. In a large, heavy pot or Dutch oven, warm the blended oil over medium high heat. When the oil is very hot, add and sear the pheasant pieces, without crowding, until golden on all sides. Transfer to a platter and discard most of the oil. Add all the vegetables and sweat for 3 to 5 minutes, without browning. Add the tomato paste and stir for 1 minute. Deglaze the pan with the red wine and let it reduce completely.

Return the seared pheasant pieces to the pot and add the thyme, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, vinegar, oregano, mustard, water, 1 tablespoon salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer until the meat is nearly falling off the bones, about 50 minutes, occasionally skimming off any scum. (Cooking time will depend on the size of the pheasant; males are much larger than females.)

Transfer the pheasant pieces to a platter. Remove and discard thyme, sage, and rosemary sprigs, and cinnamon stick. Add 1/2 to 1 cup of water if there is less than 2 inches braising liquid remaining. Bring the liquid to a boil, crack the spaghetti in half, and add to the pot along with the dates, raisins, and pine nuts. If desired, pick the pheasant meat off the bones, all the time watching and aggressively stirring the spaghetti in the pot-especially toward the end of the cooking time-to keep it moistened with the reduced braising liquid and stop it from sticking. Return the pheasant meat to the spaghetti and season with salt and pepper to taste. The spaghetti should take about 10 minutes to cook until tender.

Transfer to a warm platter and scatter with the fresh herbs; drizzle with the olive oil. (Serve immediately, or the starch from the spaghetti will thicken the liquid too much.)

* For an extra dimension of flavor and texture, cure the pheasant pieces overnight, then confit them before roasting as directed here.

About How to Roast a Lamb

Image A rising star in the food world, Michael Psilakis is co-owner of a growing empire of modern Mediterranean restaurants, and one of the most exciting young chefs in America today. In How to Roast a Lamb, the self-taught chef offers recipes from his restaurants and his home in this, his much-anticipated first cookbook.  Psilakis's cooking utilizes the fresh, naturally healthful ingredients of the Mediterranean augmented by techniques that define New American cuisine.

Available at Amazon.com

Disclosure: Review copies of books discussed in this post may have been provided to Project Foodie by publicists and/or publishers.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 29 January 2010 )
roo (Unregistered) 2010-01-27 07:48:34

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