Friday, November 27, 2009

How to Roast a Lamb by Michael Psilakis

How to Roast a Lamb: New Greek Classic Cooking
by Michael Psilakis
Copyright 2009
Little Brown - Cookbook/Memoir

288 pages

First the review. I'll post our favorite recipe separately. The most important thing you need to know about How to Roast a Lamb is that it's not just about roasting lamb. It's a big, hardback book that combines recipes with the author's personal story about how his Greek/Cretan roots, large family gatherings, love of food and fortuitous entry into the restaurant business became a lifetime pursuit that led to owning a series of restaurants and becoming a chef.

Psilakis' story is fascinating. His parents left Crete after WWII, when conditions were terrible and there were severe food shortages. I've read a couple of books about Crete during WWII, so it was easy for me to visualize post-war conditions. When he left for New York, Michael's father brought along seeds from the family garden, which he used to begin a new garden in the U.S. During Michael's childhood, he was put to work in the family's huge garden, taught how to dry and save seeds from each year's crops and, at times, also helped his mother in the kitchen. His family sounded a lot like the family of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and I have to admit I was a little envious reading about their huge gatherings.

The recipes come from years of creating recipes in his restaurants, often using traditional recipes but with some updating. Psilakis makes an unfortunate assumption that people can acquire the ingredients he uses just about anywhere -- a pretty common assumption made by people who are accustomed to life in a big city. This is unfortunate for us because we have to drive 60 miles just to get some ingredients he considers basic and others would have to be either ordered online or substituted. And, even his substitute ingredients (mentioned in the opening of the book) are impossible, difficult or expensive to acquire. He frequently uses a confit, sauce or viniagrette that must be prepared separately.

So, we were a little limited as to what we could make but there is plenty of variety in How to Roast a Lamb. The author has separated the recipes into sections that indicate what they're all about - "My Father's Garden" has recipes made from ingredients in a backyard garden, for example. There are fish recipes, recipes from Psilakis' first menus, game recipes, spreads and other recipes specifically for celebrations and recipes designed to be cooked for large gatherings. Finally, there is a section on "The Aegean Pantry" in which the author shares recipes for confits, spice mix, several vinaigrettes and candied fruits to keep on hand.

My opinion of the book, in general, is that it's a gorgeous book that I love looking at and reading but which seems pretty impractical for our household. I can't say that would be true everywhere. If you live in or close to a city where you have access to a wide variety of herbs, cheeses, seafood and vegetables, you might really enjoy the book.

My husband's opinion: "Most of the recipes are too complex." I should qualify his statement with the comment that the author is of the opinion that if you're having a large gathering, there's nothing wrong with spending days -- literally, up to a week -- cooking in preparation. I think that's lovely if you can do it and if you have good reason, but we have almost no family at all and zippo "gatherings" or parties, at this point in time. And, in spite of his comment, we've found a few recipes we like. I'll share our favorite in my next post.

3.5/5 - Gorgeous book, great personal story packed with personal photos and beautiful photos of each of the recipes but impractical and a bit complex for the ordinary cook. Particularly recommended for those who enjoy cooking complicated menus for large parties and have easy access to a variety of fresh ingredients, including seafood and herbs.


  1. We are lucky enough to live in area where we can get a lot of products now, but have lived in small towns where things weren't available, so I know what you mean. This doesn't sound like the kind of cooking I do - I'm all about quick and easy at this point in my life.

  2. Kathy,

    I've lived in small towns most of my life, so I'm accustomed to not being able to acquire a wide variety of ingredients. It's a nuisance, but at least we have a Fresh Foods within an hour's drive, now! That helps.

    I feel the same. Simple is good. I'd love to see a big publisher like Little Brown get behind a book like Chef Alain Braux's book on lowering cholesterol. His recipes are fairly simple and we've been able to buy all the ingredients for every recipe we've tried, so far.

  3. I'm so getting this book...I'll probably never cook anything out of it. It does sound a little impractical even though we do have a fantastic farmers market here in New Orleans, but it seems like a book that I would absolutely love and probably drool over. And that cover alone has me drooling! So does the salad that you just posted!

    Oh, by the way, glad to hear that you're enjoying the tea that I recommended :) I just finished a cup myself!

  4. Chris,

    It's such a beautiful book that I think you'd love it just for the sake of flipping through, reading the memoir portions and looking at the photos -- even if you never cook a thing. But, I'll bet you can find something! The salad is really terrific.

    I love that tea. Tonight I discovered I like it even better with a touch of milk when I stole my husband's mug full. We went outside to watch the International Space Station fly over (very cool -- that sucker moves fast!) and I stole his tea because it was hot and I was shivering. He'd put milk in it. Funny how those things work. I would never have thought to toss in milk! LOL


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