I've been visiting Greece whenever I had a chance since I was a little kid, and I have to say that it's my favourite place in the whole damn world. While this might have a lot to do with the laid back attitudes, cultural sights and topless Dutch girls running around, the local cuisine just takes the cake.
Everyone knows gyros and souvlaki in their fast food form, but I want to introduce you to a more "serious" meal that is still easy to prepare, even for a total beginner cook. I first tried Arni Kleftiko in this delightful vine-wrapped restaurant in Amoudara, Crete. It was definetly not what I expected from a simple dish of lamb, tomatoes and feta cheese -- you'll see what I meant once you try it yourself. It only takes a single bite to fall in love with this dish.
Arni Kleftiko means "bandit-style lamb", so make sure you grab your flintlock pistol and rob a Turkish caravan before eating it.
- 2 large tomatoes
- 2 potatoes
- 2 onions
- 2 lamb shoulder chops
- 1 carrot
- 200g feta cheese
- 2 pieces of Italian bread
- 1 tbs Vegeta (you could substitute this with 1/4 tbs salt)
- 3-4 tbs olive oil
- oregano, mint, thyme, pepper, 2 tbs lemon juice
I strongly suggest eyeballing the ammount of ingredients you toss into the bowl, it's really hard to screw up this dish. Be aware that two moderately hungry people can go trough a large dish of Arni Kleftiko in about five minutes. Despite it's looks, it's a very light dish. I've never seen leftover Arni Kleftiko, and neither will you. Mind you, it's still Greek cuisine, and the taste might be too strong to those who never had any before.
I found that inexpensive Canadian feta works well with this dish, Greek feta (especially goat or sheep milk feta, if you're a fan of strong taste) would be ideal, avoid Macedonian feta as it will melt right away. When buying, look for a hard, porous cheese that crumbles when cut. Macedonian feta is soft and has a solid surface.
You may get a different piece of lamb if you prefer more meat (although this dish works well with very little lamb), but the only substitute for lamb that should be used here is tender young goat. Beef just doesn't cut it.
Chop up tomatoes, potatoes, onions, feta, bread and lamb into half-inch cubes. You can't make carrots into cubes, so cut them normally. Take a big casserole dish or something similar and oil it up. Make sure you spread the oil all the way to the top.
Now you want to start tossing in ingredients, but make sure they're mixed in nice and even (you can't just toss them like a salad once they're all in the bowl). Apply spices and salt as you go. Squeeze some lemon in there for good measure.
Stick it in an oven warmed up to 450 degrees for 45 minutes. Depending on your oven, it may take more time, but once potatoes are done (stick a toothpick in them to check) the dish is ready. Don't worry about the juices in the bowl (which may reach up to half the bowl height sometime). Just leave the cover off when serving, and they will evaporate within minutes. Never, ever serve cold.
That's it! Serve with some traditional horiatiki salata and a small piece of baklava for desert.