12-14-2009 10:22 AM
I am thrilled to welcome Chef Michael Psilakis, author of How to Roast a Lamb, to our message board.
I prepared the award-winning meatballs and avegolemono last night, and I'm the better for it. I've enjoyed Chef Michael's food at Kefi many times, and I was thrilled to know that I could make his food in my kitchen. The recipes are true to the flavors you'll enjoy at his popular Manhattan restaurants.
Recipes aside, what I like most about this book is the way Chef Michael invites you into his childhood home, and gives you a taste of what it's like to be Greek, growing up in America. I shared this book with a Greek friend of mine, and as she read it, she kept nodding and smiling, bouncing up out of her chair, saying "This is what it was like when I grew up! I remember these dances, these dishes, having everyone over for dinner. He's writing about my life, too!"
Whether you enjoy this book for the recipes, the stories, or a visit into Chef Michael's boyhood home, one thing is certain: you'll enjoy it.
Please welcome Chef Michael to our boards, he'll be visiting Friday December 18th from 2-3PM EST.
Bring your questions!
12-14-2009 04:35 PM
I just got this book as an early Christmas present. I think it was a hint of please cook lamb for Christmas dinner.
12-18-2009 10:58 AM
I gotta say, lamb is one of the tastiest meats ever, though it seems like a lot of Americans don't grow up with and so find it a little too pungent.
I'd like to ask the chef if there is a way to approximate "grilling" inside if you don't have an indoor grill, or if I should invest in one.
Also, I'm looking forward to reading his book, but have seen in the reviews that the recipes included tend to be pretty intensive--can he recommend two or three specific dishes that are simple to prepare as an appropriate entry point for the more novice chef without a lot of time on her hands?
12-18-2009 02:19 PM
Glad to hear it! It funny, sometimes it seems like lamb has some mystical identity in the refrigerators and kitchens of America, but it's really just another meat.
For Greeks, our cow is lamb. So anything you can do with cow, you can do with lamb. It's about choosing the part of the animal you want to cook -- do you want to braise, grill, roast, saute? The choice of technique will ultimately produce the part of lamb that you're looking for.
If you want to go for the gusto, you can roast an entire lamb on a spit -- starts on page 208.
The easiest for me, when it's cold is braising. Goat and lamb are interchangeable, so anywhere you see a recipe for goat you can easily substitute lamb. Same is true for beef and pork. The process of cooking is pretty much the same.
The most typical holiday preparation for Greek Lamb would be Roasted Leg of Lamb. (p. 142). It really allows you to put together an entire meal in one big roasting pan in the oven. You can fill it up with potatos, carrots -- any kind of root vegetables, and let them slowly cook with the juices and fats that render off the lamb.
You cook the protein, and cook the starches and vegetables at the same time. It's easy to transfer to the middle of the table -- my mother would typically bring it to the table, have a nice salad, bread and you're pretty much done.
You can do roasted leg of lamb two ways, on the bone and off. If you do it off, you can butterfly it open and cure or stuff the cavity with what you like (I used sundried tomato, garlic, herbs and onions to get the Mediterranean flavor profile). It works so well with the gaminess of lamb.
If you go to a butcher who will take the bone out for you, it doesn't take much prep time, probably half an hour. You just have to think ahead because it does take some time in the oven depending on how big the leg is and how you like meat done (I always recommend undercooking). You want the leg to break down a little, because there's a lot of tendon, and it's fibrous. Roast it slowly at a low temperature, and the resulting product would be a delicate soft meat.
My next favorite is a traditional dish called Youvesti. It was traditionally cooked in a clay pot (called a Youvetsi). It's a one pot wonder, I love using shanks for this preparation. You're cutting up vegetables and getting a good sear on the shank, using red wine, tomato paste and water, bringing it to a simmer and letting it cook until the meat falls off the bone. Add orzo 10 minutes before you're ready to serve and let it cook in the liquids. Again, something you put in the middle of the table, real super traditional way of cooking lamb.
The moral of the story is not to be afraid. If you're a confident cook, lamb isn't really different from other red meat. It's a similar texture, so once you say "this is Greek beef", try substituting lamb in recipes where you'd ordinarily use beef. The results will be exciting for the peopel you're cooking for and something you'll be pleasantly surprised with too.
12-18-2009 02:30 PM
I agree with you about the lamb. Americans do seem at first to feel that lamb has a gaminess that they're not accustomed to. That depends on where the lamb is coming from. If you want less gamey lamb, American lamb that hasn't been aged is going to be less gamey than New Zealand or Australian.
American lamb, to me, is the best we can get -- really intense, well-marbled, flavorful meat.
Conversely, once you understand the gaminess (like blue cheese), you start to want it. The fresher the meat, the less gamey, the more age you put on it, the more gamey.
Most people in the US who are used to eating fresh beef (bright red meat, wrapped up from the supermarket), although it looks wonderful, really has very little flavor. If you let the same meat sit and dry out a bit so the excess liquid in the muscle is removed, it will intensify the beefy flavor. That's why, at a steakhouse, you'll get more beefy flavor. If you have a great butcher who has dry aged beef, immediately you'll see what aging can do.
I think the same thing is true with lamb.
Interestingly, I've been asked a lot about grilling, because people associate grilling wtih Greek food. It's a great question. The indoor grill, unless you have a great hood and great kitchen -- I don't recommend. George Forman grills are not grills, they're toasters wtih grill marks. Grilling isn't a function of drawing lines on a piece of fish, it's cooking something on an open fire to affect the flavor of the protein you're trying to cook, not trying to mimic visually what a flat grill pan will do.
There's no difference, as far as I'm concerned with a roasting or saute pan in terms of the ending flavor. The difference will be in texture. If you want less caramelization, crispyness, (less protein touching heat), then use a grill pan. If you want more crispiness use a flat saute pan.
What's interesting to note is that there are natural sugars in all proteins. When I talk about caramelization, the protein will react to the heat in a way that will allow the natural sugars in the fiber react with the heat. A pan, whether it's grill or saute -- has those little bits of browned goodness which can be deglazed, taking some form of liquid and adding it to a hot pan after the protein has been cooked. They have a tremendous amount of flavor and can be added to the sauce.
I wouldn't buy an indoor grill (unless you can have an open fire), but I would recommend using those beautiful bits to make the sauce. Don't wash them away. Outside barbeque grill, in my house, was always something that the men did. Growing up, women did the cooking, but the outdoor grill was man's work. I grew up doing that stuff. It's not only something I love because of the resulting effect on the protein, but it brings back fond memories of being young, outside with my father bonding over the open flame.
It's part of why I cook -- if you read the stories in the book, you'll see. And it might resonante with you if you came from a family that was similar.
Grilling is a simple way of cooking something that causes very little mess, which is a huge bonus. Here I would say go out and buy a portable grill -- you don't need thousands to buy something inside your house. Portable with a propane tank if you don't want to fuss with wood and charcoal (although I would recommend if you can, doing something with wood or charcaol). Open flame makes a difference, wood makes a bigger difference. One thing to get a char, another to get a smoky char.
When the fat of the protein drops onto the wood of the charcoal, creating a hissy smokyness, that constant flow of fat dripping and smoke coming up will flavor the meat and fish and the vegetables with that brilliant smoky flavor that we associate with a grill.
12-18-2009 02:54 PM
For less complicated recipes, the "My First Recipes" section are things I remember cooking when I was very young, or the first things I started cooking when I got into the kitchen. Both of these, for the novice cook, are fairly simple and straightforward.
Anything from "My Father's Garden", which is a vegetable-based chapter, are also good side dishes or garnishes for different kinds of proteins.
One of the most difficult things for me when I was writing the cookbook was trying to put myself in the position of the home cook, because ease is relative to so many different things. For me, what's easy in cooking, isn't so easy (for my wife, for example). I prefaced the thought in my mind that people who pick up a cookbook are interested in cooking, and understanding how to do and cook certain things. So the hope here is that we would have a mixture of recipes that go from fairly easy, to moderate to hard.
I too have read those reviews, and I agree that anything in the last chapter "Anthos, The New World" is not something that the home cook who doesn't have a day or two to think about food to do. It is a way of showing respect to the cooks who are cooking in that restaurant (Anthos). I felt that I was leaving those cooks out, and so we added this in (I finished the book, and then put this chapter in). It is a difficult chapter. We actually took recipes out of it -- 10 recipes from Anthos are like 50 from everyone else.
Although some of these recipes take a little bit of time, what's important is if you do one recipe, you can get 2 or 3 meals from it. That, somehow, needs to be calculated into it. If you braise a lamb shank, or braise 2 or 3, you can take them as they are and freeze them, or you can take what's leftover, pull it off the bone, make some pasta -- and then you have Papardelle with Lamb Ragu, a completely different dish made with the leftovers.
I always think about making a little bit more, or using the scraps to generate a meal sometime in the future. You spend a half an hour extra today, and save it in the future. Most of the braises (like meatballs), take a little time, so it's not immediate -- like getting a candy bar and eating it. You have to wait, and waiting can be a difficult part of cooking.
Many novice cooks have that as a problem -- they have to remove the urge to touch things, to take a step back and let it have. "Resist the urge" is something I always say in the kitchen -- resist the urge to touch the meat.
The half-an-hour meal, while a wonderful concept, can be found in this book, but hopefully, in this book you'll learn what Greek food is, and learn that time spent cooking, especially time spent cooking wtih someone, is creating a memory, which will bloom in the future, and allow you to revisit those memories.
Food is a vehicle to bring us together. That's what my mom did, every night. But it's also a gift. The person making the food is a gift giver. The process of gift giving is probably something that all great chefs have inside them innately -- the need to give is overwhelming in most chefs, something that for myself I've questions on a philisophical level.
For chefs, it seems like a selfish act -- we like to cook and we like to give. So are we doing it for others, or for ourselves? The end result is to bring us together, to create memories, and those memories will last forever.
The reason the book was written the way it was -- the seed of the idea was during the Easter following my fathers passing. I was roasting a lamb with my son. It was time to season it, so we wet the lamb down with water on our hands. I did it with my son as my father taught me. What was amazing was when it came time to wet the animal down, I asked my son who was 2 at the time to cup his hands, so he cupped his hands and I was standing over him with a glass of water, and as I poured the water, I realized that those were my hands 40 years earlier with my father standing over me.
At that moment, I knew how happy I had made my father when I was two, and that brought me peace. Knowing he wasn't with us physically, but knowing that this event occured and brought him joy was an important part of why food brings me joy, and why I'm a chef today.
That's what food can be. It's about, hopefully, spending time together in the kitchen, backyard, at the table, it's about spending time together.
If you love cooking and giving, then you won't mind the time it will take you. Try the Pan Roasted Chicken with Lemon Potatoes, p. 170 -- that's a really easy dish. Or, Potato Egg Tomato and Peppers, p. 103 -- that was something my mother would do when she was in a rush, and she didn't have time to make a meal. It's kind of like a french fry omelet mixed together, it actually became one of my favorite things to eat. The Shellfish Youvetsi, p. 79. It's a play on the Lamb Youvetsi (which I mention earlier), just cook the shellfish in minutes, and put in orzo. So it's more about how long it takes you to cook orzo. Maybe 10 or 15 minutes total cooking time.
As a chef, I know I shouldn't be saying use canned or jarred products, but I'd rather have you using good artisinal peppers out of a jar, and not taking all the time roasting and peeling peppers. I think there are good products out there that you can use and will really help the home cook. In many ways, you can mimic the things that we can make in the restaurant, since we have a lot of helping hands.
You can find substitutions for the premade components, especially if you have it already. There are a lot of references in the book -- If you're going to take the time to make X, then you can also make Y.
On page 108, if you're going to make the Candied Quince for Yogurt and Quince Spoonfruit, then you should also consider making the skate on page 44. The time consuming part of the yogurt recipe is making the candied quince. But once you have that ingredient, the skate becomes much easier./
The best way I think of looking at cookbooks and thinking about the food you're going to make is reading them. This book has a lot of prose, so it's saying "Read me, please!", but many cooks have a tremendous amount of information that can be derived from them.
I didn't go to cooking school or trained formally under anyone, so cookbooks are an integral part of me teaching myself. I remember, and I paraphrased earlier Soltnier in his cookbook -- and this is how I knew I'd be OK as a chef. He said that all chefs are gift givers by nature. He also said when people asked him why he made a dish in a certain way, he'd say, I just know. Same thing was true with me. A piece of meat I'd never cooked before, I knew how to make taste good.
If you pick one thing (this is my father's advice, and it's worked well to date) to be great at, if you love that thing, then you'll have an opportunity to be great. I think that's true in life -- find the one thing you have passion for. People will be drawn to it because they perceive it. That's the difference between something good and great.
12-18-2009 04:07 PM
Lamb is good, so is mutton(my personal preference), and goat. But I'm used game meats.
Indoor grilling can be accomplished best I've found through broiler use. Place meat on a suspended rack with a pan underneath and use you broiler like an upside down grill. So long as you have an adequate drip pan smoke won't be a problem.
It's a really nice book BTW.
12-18-2009 07:31 PM
Thank you so much for your incredibly thoughtful replies, your passion for the foods you prepare and the traditions you follow is evident. I live in an apartment so an outdoor grill simply isn't an option for me, but I like some of the simpler recipes you point as a good place to start.
I enjoy cooking more elaborate meals, but don't have a lot of space, which can make it more challenging (and sadly less rewarding). But perhaps I'll take on the challenge when I visit my family this holiday!
I guess it's true that Greek food is often equated with grilling, much like how Persian food is reduced to kebab. I'll be sure to pay more attention to some of the other methods of preparation in the book.
12-21-2009 08:26 PM
Thank you, Michael for joining us on the boards.
Prior to Michael's visit, I made his Pork and Beef Meatballs and Avegolemono. Both were exceptional, and worth the extra time I put into making them.
Plus, as Michael said, you can make meals from the meals -- I pureed some of his Garlic Confit with leftover parsley, dill and basil, and a bit of dried greek oregano. It made and incredible marinate for the leftover chicken breasts (from the Avegolemono). I cooked them Al Mattone, like a spatchcocked bird (see Paula Wolfert's author visit for more on this), and it was outta this world.
Then I made a greek rice, again with the same herb combination, plus toasted pine nuts, lemon zest and juice, and a little of that garlic oil that was part of the garlic confit. Outrageous.
Point is, sometimes I find that when you make a few recipes, and yes, they have a lot of ingredients, and yes, they're a little more time consuming than the average recipe, but once you make them, you've learned something that will elevate your abilities for the next time you go to cook, and you'll be able to improvise something delicious, both because the food is already in the fridge (Garlic Confit, fresh herbs), and you so enjoyed the flavor combining, you can't wait to do it again -- you're own way!
Thanks again, Michael. Your stories were wonderful. Congratulations on creating a cookbook that will be enjoyed in my kitchen, and my table, for decades.