Recipes for Your Own Greek Easter

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Easter is for Greeks what Thanksgiving is for Americans: a glorious family feast with dishes that make the most of the young season's early produce. Unlike Thanksgiving, though, Easter is a four-day celebration, the religious reconstitution of ancient pagan rituals that celebrate the return of spring: the feeling of the sun's warmth, the renewal of the earth, the blossoming of plants after the dark and cold winter.

Like all big Orthodox festivities, a 40-day period of Lent precedes Easter. Four weeks before Easter, all foods derived from animals with warm blood--meat, dairy, and eggs--are prohibited; during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday, even olive oil is banned from the table.

The exclusion of a plant oil seems most peculiar, especially as the use of sesame oil is permitted. But there is historical justification. Regulations regarding Lent strictly bar all foodstuffs that have been in contact with animal products: Broadly interpreted, olive oil falls into that category. In the old days, olive oil was extracted by pressing ground olive paste between mats woven with goat's hair. Though technologies have since changed, certain traditions have not, at least come Good Friday.

We celebrate Orthodox Easter the first Sunday following the full moon after the spring equinox, which always falls after Passover, as both holidays follow the lunar calendar. This year we will celebrate on April 19, a moderately warm time of the year, suitable for the traditional lamb roasting and al fresco lunch. But in 2010, Easter coincides with the Catholic calendar, the first Sunday of April--a cooler and likely damper early day in spring will follow.

Whatever the weather, people like my sister, her husband, and their close friends brave the chill and visit a different island or corner of the mainland to celebrate. They rent a summer cottage, buy a local lamb and a bag of charcoal, and head for the nearest beach. An impromptu fire pit is constructed. They light the fire and roast the meat, with everybody helping to turn the spit for two to three hours.

Octopus, Calamari, and Classical Music

Not just church-going older Greeks, but many young people who normally eat meat twice a day fast during Holy Week. They become temporary vegetarians not so much for religious as cultural reasons--and, recently, to "detoxify" themselves. Even the Greek McDonald's advertise Lenten "burgers" made with seafood or beans.

Cuttlefish, octopus, and calamari, our beloved cephalopods, together with shrimp and, of course, lobster, replace meat in the seasonal, one-pot family meals: cuttlefish stew with spring onions and spinach; octopus youvetsi, with orzo pasta baked with the octopus in a wine and tomato sauce (the seafood variation of the traditional lamb youvetsi); or octopus stifado, a hearty stew usually prepared with hare or other game, simmered in a rich sweet-wine sauce with pearl onions, scented with cinnamon and allspice.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

Lentil soup, simply dressed with vinegar, was the traditional dish prepared for Good Friday, but I propose a warm salad of mixed beans with garlic-lemon-tahini dressing--still within the rules of Lent and much more interesting. Sesame halva is the Lenten sweet par excellence, and bakeries have started to create elaborate sweets and even ice creams based on halva, which is often paired with bitter chocolate.

Schools close for two weeks, but when I was growing up Easter was the most frustrating "vacation." Theaters and cinemas were dark during Holy Week, except for the few that showed The Passion of Christ and other biblical Hollywood films, which we ended up seeing repeatedly.

Most were low-budget, black-and-white movies, which my friends and I identified with code-names. One we called "the merci" because, although dubbed into Greek, Mary Magdalene in one scene thanked Christ in perfect French. In another, dubbed "the bicycle," an anachronistic two-wheeler was clearly visible traversing the background of the frame during the climactic crucifixion scene.

Later, those films replaced regular programming during the early television years, together with boring talk shows, dated documentaries, and classical music concerts. In fact, for most Greeks not familiar with classical music--the vast majority, up until the late '70s--Beethoven, Bach, and even Mozart, were considered funereal tunes. "Is it Good Friday already?" asked a plumber who came to my flat in Athens to fix a leak in the kitchen. I think I was listening to a Bach concerto, and he was really perplexed that anybody could listen to such music without a crucifixion looming.

Fireworks and Magiritsa

Those restrictions of the recent past don't hold any longer. Cinemas and TV continue with their regular schedules, even promoting action movies, cartoons, and films that appeal to children. But church ceremonies still draw crowds on the last days before Easter. Practically everybody leaves the cities to celebrate Easter in their villages and islands, staying in restored ancestral houses, newly built summer homes, or hotels. Kea, so close and yet so far from Athens, is flooded with people for Easter celebrations. There are more visitors than even at the height of August.

Even non-believers, or those who see the inside of a church only during weddings and funerals, hold dark candles and follow the solemn procession of epitaphios, the wooden reliquary decorated with the season's most fragrant flowers, paraded on the streets on Good Friday after sunset.

On Saturday, everybody attends Easter midnight-mass, holding white candles which they bring home, still flickering with the "holy light" spread from the priest's candle out to the entire village. The ceremony takes place outside the church, and the moment Christ's resurrection is announced, bells toll frantically, setting off a celebratory pandemonium.

The ferry blasts, guns are fired, and all kinds of fireworks are ignited. Even pieces of dynamite are thrown. The scene can be downright frightening. Although the use of dangerous fireworks is now strictly prohibited, the tradition continues with impunity.

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Photo by Aglaia Kremezi

The whole thing lasts about 20 minutes, and then a famished crowd rushes to the table to break the fast with magiritsa: a soup prepared with diced lamb's innards, lots of spring onions, dill or fennel, and then finished with a tart avgolemono--egg and lemon sauce. This late Saturday supper is a lucrative nightmare for restaurants and taverns all over Greece, flooded with Athenians who all expect to eat at exactly half past midnight.

Milk-fed Lamb and Kid

If you ask any Greek his or her favorite dish, he or she will probably reply "roast lamb." If you inquire further, people will start to describe the heavenly taste of the sweet, crackling skin of a spring lamb, brushed with olive oil and seasoned with oregano or savory.

Roasted either on the spit or on a grill over a charcoal fire, the lamb has an incomparable flavor. I often wonder whether the Greek obsession with roasted baby lamb is due to the fact that, for ages, it has been the festive dish enjoyed on Easter and on some important religious and family occasions. Or, rather, perhaps it is the fabulous taste of the succulent meat alone that makes people drool.

There are no large lambs or mutton in Greece; lambs weigh no more than 24 pounds. Supermarkets import large legs of lamb from Australia and New Zealand--similar to the lamb you get in the U.S.--but they are not very popular. Baby lamb is far more flavorful when eaten the moment it is removed from the oven or carved from the spit. There is general consensus that the baby lamb "imported" from the islands is the best.

Butchers advertise their meats as coming from Kea, Tinos, Naxos, or other islands where the lamb are fed on wild greens and herbs. Their flesh is tender and somewhat gamy at the same time.

At Easter, families order a whole lamb from a distant relation or friend, who will bring it from remote islands like Folegandros or Astypalaia, where lamb is raised, usually, for local consumption only.

During the days before Easter, the ferries coming from the islands are packed with slaughtered lambs, and people wait impatiently in taxis or private cars to get their precious cargo. Most Americans, used to neat packages of meat, would be appalled at the sight of the sloppily wrapped whole lambs with heads, if not throats, maintaining their integrity.

Greeks also love kid (young goat), which is leaner than lamb, with its slightly darker meat. It tends to dry out when roasted on a spit, and it is best roasted in the oven. I am not particularly crazy about spit-roasted lamb, and this year I plan to roast half a kid in our wood burning oven. The recipe I will be using is linked below. I will flavor the meat with a North-African inspired spice blend, lemon, and onion. I have adapted it for the lamb available in Europe and the U.S.


Polyspori: Mixed Bean Salad with Dill, and Garlic-Lemon-Tahini Dressing
This is a Lenten dish I serve on Good Friday, when even olive oil is banned from the table. If you don't like tahini, substitute 4 tablespoons fruity olive oil, and omit the wine or water.

Magiritsa: Easter Lamb Soup
Magiritsa is traditionally made with the parts of the lamb not used for spit-roasting. Remember that Greek Easter lambs are very small (about 24 pounds). The soup gets its distinctive taste from scallions, fresh dill, and egg-and-lemon sauce. There are lots of different magiritsa recipes. A friend described to me the one her family prepared in Halki, a small island in the Dodecanese.

Roasted Leg of Lamb with North-African Spices, Lemon, and Onions
I call this herb and spice rub "North-African" because, besides the classic oregano and rosemary, it contains such Tunisian and Moroccan spices as caraway, cumin, and turmeric. In addition it is spiked with harissa, the ubiquitous hot pepper paste, that is to Arab North-Africa what chili oil is to Asia.

Patates Riganates: Roasted Potatoes with Garlic, Lemon and Oregano
Few people can resist these potatoes, which are capable of stealing the show from any food they accompany, even from the lamb--so make sure you have plenty for seconds. Although it is served all over Greece, this dish is particularly good on islands like Naxos, or here on Kea, where the local potatoes have exceptional flavor. On the special days when a leg of lamb or a chicken is roasted, the potatoes are cooked in its juices.

Beet, Yogurt, Garlic and Dill Salad
This pink beet tzatziki is an ideal side dish to serve with grilled lamb, chicken, or fish. As an alternative to the traditional pita bread, I prefer to spread it on toasted whole wheat or multi-grain bread, rubbed with a cut clove of garlic.