Kleftiko literally means 'stolen meat'. So lamb kleftiko is 'stolen lamb!' The name of the dish originates from the time of the Greek revolution in the 15th century when bands of Greek guerrilla fighters, called Klephts (shown in the photo below), hid in the mountains and in order to survive would intermittently raid a village to steal a grazing goat or a lamb from a nearby hillside. They were essentially anti-Ottoman insurgents who originally were simple country folk but then retreated to the mountains to avoid Ottoman rule. They waged a continuous rebellion against the Ottomans up through the 19th century. That same band of brigands also gets credit for gifting us with the more well-known term of kleptomania ... a recurrent urge to steal. Despite the unorthodox and negative connotations of the name of this dish, it is beyond fabulous!
Popular in Greece, it is the perfect comfort food, combining roasted leg of lamb, seasoned veggies, fluffy potatoes, and tangy feta cheese. Once the bandits stole the lamb, they would roast it in a pit in the ground, to seal the flavors and to trap the smoke. Such maneuvers resulted in their successful missions of providing themselves delicious dinners, without giving away their whereabouts. At home, we don't need to be stealth and discreet, but nevertheless, yearn to deliver the flavors offered by the 'underground ovens.' Roasting the kleftiko in parchment paper helps to achieve that end, as the parchment paper creates a steam pocket that cooks the meat gently and retains moisture. Dutch ovens also act similarly and are why they are one of my favorite kitchen accessories (as I described in my 'Kitchen Gadget' blog), particularly for this type of dish!
Lamb Kleftiko recipe
1 - 1.5 kg. leg of lamb
2 small onions
2-3 bell peppers
4 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp dried oregano
freshly ground black pepper
250 gms feta cheese
~10 petite potatoes
4 small Campari tomatoes
baking bands or kitchen string
Start by thoroughly washing the leg of lamb. Then cut it into ~2" chunks. Place them into a large bowl and set them aside.
Next, prepare the veggies. Peel the onions and cut them in half and then into 1" wedges. Cut the peppers into 1" chunks. Thinly slice 2 garlic cloves. Add the veggies to the bowl with the lamb chunks. Next pour in the olive oil, white wine, and lemon juice. Thereafter, add the mustard, 2 whole cloves of garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper. Use your hands to combine all the ingredients together. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place into the refrigerator for at least 2 hours, or overnight. The longer the better so that the lamb can soak up all the yummy flavors.
Once the meat is done marinating, pre-heat the oven to 350 F. Remove bowl of lamb from refrigerator and add the cubed feta cheese. Prepare petite potatoes by washing them and cutting them in half.
Now wrap the kleftiko in the parchment paper. Layer four LONG pieces of parchment paper onto a flat surface to form a star. Place the potatoes onto the center of the parchment and season them with salt, pepper, and oregano. Place the marinaded lamb and veggies over top of the potatoes, followed by the slices of tomato. Close the parchment over the kleftiko to seal it in by pulling opposite ends together. Tightly secure on top with either kitchen string or oven bands. Lift the entire packet into a 9x13" roasting pan. Place roasting pan into the oven at 350F.
Roast lamb in the sealed parchment for about 2 hours, until tender. Remove pan from oven and increase oven temperature to 425 F. Meanwhile, unwrap the kleftiko and trim the parchment paper with scissors. Re-place the roasting pan back into the oven for another 30 minutes until the lamb is browned. Toss the veggies and check potatoes for doneness.
Prior to dating and then ultimately marrying a Greek, I can't recall ever eating lamb. Growing up Hungarian, lamb dishes were not on the menu in our house. Hungarians tend to gravitate more toward pork, veal, beef, and chicken dishes. Now, I eat lamb frequently. Roasted leg of lamb, lamb chops, lamb souvlaki, lamb meatballs, lamb kleftiko ... you name it. Pair them with cubes of tangy feta, fresh olives, and warm pita bread. To see other ways that I like to prepare lamb, take a look at two of my prior blogs: https://www.indulgewithildi.com/post/party-like-a-greek-opa and https://www.indulgewithildi.com/post/stick-a-skewer-in-it-and-grill. Tzatziki or Greek green beans also make delicious accompaniments. While sometimes it can be difficult to find good cuts of lamb at the grocery store, I have experienced success in purchasing fantastic lamb at Costco, of all places. Typically their's is from Australia or New Zealand. Of course in Greece, I take every opportunity to eat lamb as much as possible and interestingly enough, in Turkey as well. Lamb that I ate throughout Turkey, easily rivaled that which I eat in Greece. If you haven't had much in the way of lamb, I encourage you to give it a try at home or abroad. It is quite delicious!