Terrible terrible terrible.
We–well, mostly I, being the one who’s the Entertainer in our family–wanted to have a new friend and his children over for dinner. The New Friend was the father of one of Cameron’s (our Peruvian grandson’s) friends–actually my favorite of Cameron’s friends–and he had a dream of a little sister. The New Friend had given Bill and me a gorgeous dinner and naturally we wanted to reciprocate. Mrs. Dinner Party was excited about the prospect…we’d be six. Easy enough.
I’d taken it into my head to make one of my formerly favorite dinner party dishes, the Greek Kleftiko ~ from 1) Klephts–bandits hiding out in the mountains cooking their food in tightly closed pouches buried in smoldering campfires so the aroma wouldn’t give them away, or 2) Greek patriots during WW II hiding out in the mountains cooking their food in tightly closed pouches buried in smoldering campfires so the aroma wouldn’t give them away to the Nazis. I thought it would be fun for the kids to be presented with a parchment bundle tied with string, open it and find a fragrant lamb supper within.
I remembered the preparation of these bundles was an adventure. Should you too be adventurous, here’s how to eat like a mountain-hidden Greek:
At some point find a baking vessel. Bundles average 6-inches wide and to keep the lamb moistened should touch on all sides. My 4 fit perfectly in my round Mexican cazuela 12-inches wide, 2-1/2-inches deep.
(Bill’s and my vegan bundles baked directly on the rack on either side of the cazuela–that worked but contents would have been juicier had they fit snug in a baker.)
Four hours before planning to serve, slide your oven rack into the next-to-lowest slot, set the temperature to 350 degrees. Fetch your cotton cooking twine.
Nota Bene: don’t be addled building the bundles as I was and forget to season as you go…I was abashed when I noticed all the guests–including the kids–reaching for the salt cellar.
For each bundle ~
On 2 big (16″) squares of baking parchment laid so you have 8 points, in the center set:
4 quarters of a smallish red new potato (unpeeled, bandits don’t peel their potatoes)
A generous (8-9 ounces) chunk of lamb shoulder* (juicier than the leg, better suited to long cooking)**
For each chunk of meat peel and cut 1 to 2 garlic cloves into long slivers, with a small sharp knife make incisions evenly around the meat and tuck in the slivers. Lay the lamb on top of the potatoes.
Now come vegetables cut in 1-1/2 to 2-inch chunks:
4 pieces of peeled red onion
4 pieces of unpeeled eggplant
2 to 3 1/2-inch wide strips of green and/or red sweet pepper
Roma tomato half (cut lengthwise).
Actually, in bandit mode, you could add any vegetable you like…carrots, zucchini, whole mushrooms, my Greek cookbook mentions peas.
On top (except for vegans), a 1/2-inch thick slice of melting cheese…in Greece it’s sheep’s milk kasseri or kefalotiri. I used the Spanish sheep’s milk manchego. Gruyère and Monterey jack are other melting possibilities.
Finally, a sprig or two of marjoram or oregano or more of the dried herb sprinkled over.
For vegan Bill and me, I began with a handful of raw green lentils, then the above vegetables, finished with a showering of corn kernels cut fresh from the cob.
My recipe*** instructs: “Wrap carefully and fold the paper securely, twisting the ends tightly so that none of the juice escapes. Rub the packages with oil, place in a roasting pan and bake in a moderate oven for about 3 to 4 hours… No water, no oil, may be added; don’t cover the pan and don’t turn the packages….Serve piping hot in the paper…”
So what was so “terrible” about the evening?
I wasn’t up to it.
Curious, but out of the blue I felt my age. Creaky. Bent. Forgetful. Flattened.
Someone I once knew coined the phrase, “The burden of expectation…”
I guess it was because we haven’t had company for dinner in a very long time. We’ve casually entertained kith and kin, but from our last dinner party three guests have since left this earth.
I won’t tell you about the dreadful puree of cauliflower soup.
Nor about the navy banquette cushion where the Naugahyde has split in four places and the upholsterer a friend recommended won’t return desperate messages. (I went to one of those Everything Warehouses and bought six new seat cushions plus eight new napkins–our napkins are from my mother’s table, fifteen years old and the worse for wear).
Our guests arrived bearing purple tulips and a beautiful red wine. So far so good.
I served the soup. Of course they said it was delicious.
I served the bandits’ packages. Fun and delicious (except for no salt).
Conversation was lively, the kids were charming, everyone seemed happy with the food.
To my astonishment, Bill said his package was “The best vegan meal you’ve cooked yet!”
I did wish I had a slab of melting cheese on top.
Going to bed I said to my husband, “No more dinner parties! None! Zip! Never again! Cannot do it… Much better I give my time to the garden…”
Night before last we went to a friend’s granddaughter’s high school performance of “Mean Girls”–she had the lead–and afterward when we were congratulating her and her parents, somebody said, “We’d love you to come for supper! Cameron’s about to enter this school and…”
Who was that garrulous person?
*You’ll likely need to go to an old-fashioned butcher who’ll give you the whole shoulder, then bone and divide it up for you. Freeze the bone to make a carroty broth.
**From the night before to a few hours before baking, brush the meat all over with olive oil, generously sprinkle with lemon juice then flakes of dried marjoram or oregano. I don’t salt and pepper at this point but some do. Cover, refrigerate, bring to room temperature before baking.
***Arni Exotica in Robin Howe’s Greek Cooking (published by Andre Deutsch in London in 1960). One day I should give you her Skorthalia me patates, Garlic Sauce with Potatoes (my penciled note underlined twice is “Incredible”). And her Athenian Walnut Cake made with 8 eggs and 1-1/2 pounds of walnuts, also incredible. I’ve cooked with, loved this book, for 63 years. Go thou and do likewise…copies of several editions are available inexpensively from Abebooks.com.