May it Please the Palate--Lamb Wrapped In Phyllo--"Outlaw Style"

In the movie Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn played the title character perfectly. His happy-go-lucky reply to any of life's troubles was "Now we dance!" Or perhaps I'm thinking of the Saturday Night Live spoof with John Belushi. No matter --you get the idea.

Similarly, on an evening when I was burdened with work, I decided ... to cook. One part escapism, the other part self-therapy, I found peace in the simple act of chopping herbs, seasoning lamb, and brushing butter on sheets of phyllo. At the end of the process, I have created something. It's not the brief that's due, but hey, it's dinner.

One of the best things I ever made teaching a cooking class was quite by accident. With a leg of lamb in the oven, I was demonstrating working with phyllo, the thin sheets of pastry dough used for spinach pie, baklava, etc. I hacked off an end of lamb and wrapped it in phyllo, then baked it to a succulent deliciousness. Unfortunately the rest of the lamb didn't turn out quite as well - but I vowed to try and recreate the lamb wrapped in phyllo.

I found such a recipe called "Lamb Outlaw-Style," which is perhaps the Greek response to "Gagnam Style." Legend has it that when the 19th Century Ottoman Turks burned Greek villages, men "took to the mountains where they lived as nomadic outlaws, hiding out in rude shelters and passing their days raiding the enemy." (The Olive and the Caper, Susanna Hoffman)

These romanticized brigands were known as kleftes¸ or robbers. Because they could not reveal the location of their makeshift camps, they learned to cook food allowing no smoke to escape. Thus lamb slow-baked in phyllo, with the juices trapped inside. "When the vessel is opened, redolent aromas issue forth to reveal a succulent filling."

Ms. Hoffman's recipe imagines a dish with foraged ingredients. I've substituted spinach for dandelion greens and added some fresh herbs; I soaked currants in red wine in lieu of raisins. The secret to this dish is to slow cook or braise the lamb and to stop baking before the lamb gets too tough. I served this with tzatziki sauce, but I think it would be better with tomato sauce kapama, spiked with allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon.

2 TBS olive oil

1 1/2 lbs boneless lamb stew pieces, cut into 1" cubes

salt and pepper

1 medium leek, white and light green parts trimmed, coarsely chopped and well rinsed

(I subbed chopped green onion)

1/4 cup raisins (I used currants)

1 tsp ground cumin (I omitted, using fresh chopped mint, flat leaf parsley and dill)

1/2 cup red wine (recipe calls for sweet. Soak the raisins or currants in it before using)

4 packed cups coarsely chopped dandelion greens or arugula (I used spinach)

12 sheets phyllo dough (find in grocer's freezer; thaw in 'frig overnight)

olive oil or butter for brushing on the phyllo

3-4 oz. crumbled cheese (I used twice that amount of sheep's milk feta)

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Sear the lamb pieces in batches, season with salt and pepper until just browned, about 5 minutes. Remove to a dish.

2. Return the lamb and juices to the skillet with the raisins, leek, herbs or spices, and wine. Simmer until liquid has evaporated. Set aside to cool.

3. Wilt the greens in boiling water. Spinach needs little water; dandelion may need more.

4. Preheat oven to 350 and melt a stick of butter over low heat.

5. Open phyllo package. Spread out phyllo and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Remove the top sheet to a cutting board and brush with melted butter or oil. Cover with a second sheet and repeat.

6. Place 1/6 each of the meat mixture, greens, and cheese on the bottom of the phyllo rectangle. Fold up bottom, fold in sides, and roll up. Repeat with all six.

7. Place on a greased baking sheet or parchment paper. Bake 35-45 minutes until phyllo is just golden.

Serve hot or at room temperature. If necessary, eat outlaw fashion while outrunning opposing counsel, or while dancing in celebration after turning in your brief.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Thu, Mar 7, 2013

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