Review: How to Roast a Lamb

Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.

I gave a few copies of “How to Roast a Lamb” away a few weeks ago and unfortunately the people who won have yet to receive it because the book is on back order! The publisher is telling me that they are going to ship them out soon though. After reading this book, I can see how it’s on back order. It’s really a stunning cookbook and is very transparent about not only Greek food, but also the life of a chef. In this case, chef Michael Psilakis.

The structure of this book is odd for someone who reads a lot of cookbooks. It’s not structured by meal or type of food, or anything like that. Instead, it’s structured off the life of the author. Each chapter is sort of based around periods in this chef’s life: childhood, growing up, family, fishing, restaurant life, etc. It’s an interesting way to structure a book and because of that structure it reads more like a biography than a cookbook.

But don’t worry. The recipes are there. And they are legit.

My Father’s Garden

After a well-written and interesting introduction (and some family photos), along with some basic Greek ingredients that show up throughout the book, Chef Michael gets into the first chapter. Here he talks about his youth, gardening with his father. He talks about planting seeds and how he learned about vegetables and where they come from. One section really got to me, because I had a similar talk with my father growing up:

And those vegetables! I can still remember the vivid tastes, smells, and textures. “Smell this,” my father said as he held a ripe tomato under my nose. “What do you smell?”

“Dirt,” I answered.
“Earth,” he corrected me. “You smell the earth.”

I’ll be honest. I don’t smell earth anymore on most of the tomatoes I buy and eat. Sometimes I almost forget that that’s where they come from.

This chapter has a ton of fantastic recipes in it. Great salads are included like the shaved fennel, cabbage, olive, onion and graviera salad. There are some family style dishes like the stewed English peas & mushrooms. But all of the dishes in the chapter originate from the author’s childhood garden. And while you may not be able to recreate that garden, he makes the flavors accessible.

Open Water

Seafood is very important to the Greek diet. This chapter shows that. It’s one of the longer chapters in the book and while some of the recipes are kind of ambitious (octopus), some are very simple (grilled swordfish with braised cauliflower). The freshness of these dishes are amazing. The idea is to take something straight from the sea and bring it to the table. When you do that, you don’t need a lot of other flavors. It’s simple and wonderful.

I’m going to skip around a bit because besides these first to chapters, there are nine other fairly lengthy chapters in the book and I won’t spoil all of the surprises for you. Each chapter though starts with a story – where and when the recipes originated – and then has on average 10 recipes in it that are all very delicious sounding.

But What About The Lamb?!

If you just see the cover, there’s a fear that it’s an entire book about how to roast lamb. While interesting, it’s not very applicable to my daily life. That said, when I got into the book, I got to page 80 or so and thought… wait a second, there hasn’t been a single lamb recipe yet! What’s the deal with the lamb?!

Have no fear though. The lamb does come. Eventually there is an entire chapter on the lamb and goat. If anything in this chapter, you get a sense of respect for meat that is unfortunately lacking in our culture. Every piece of the lamb is used and there are some interesting resulting recipes. There are some delicious sounding recipes for lamb heart and lamb tongue. Now if I could only get my hands on some…

The Ambitious Anthos

One very interesting part of this book is following the Chef’s journey through his restaurant career. This all culminates in Anthos, the Chef’s NYC restaurant. Chef Michael did something really cool in this chapter. He gives some of the actual recipes that he uses or has used at Anthos. It’s cool because after reading through the book you can see where the recipes came from. You can see how he got to his smoked octopus recipe (sort of).

As for the recipes though, they all look delicious, but you would have to have some guts to try them. I’m not saying I won’t try one someday, but they are very serious recipes. The poached halibut dish, for example, has an astounding 49 ingredients. It’s amazing to read and the photography is great, but I’m not sure that most readers will be making much out of this chapter.

That said, this chapter acts as a climax in the book. I don’t think the intent is that you would necessarily try these (although I bet he would be thrilled if you did). Instead, he just wants to finish the story. It’s a cool chapter, even if it’s not exactly practical.

The Aegean Pantry

Right after this intense foodie chapter, we do a complete 180. This chapter is the exact opposite. It’s the basics of Greek cooking. In fact, the recipes in this chapter are used in about 80% of the recipes in the book. So this chapter is basically essential. The recipes are simple – most just a few ingredients – but the flavors are serious. Recipes like garlic confit and artichoke confit are included along with an assortment of vinaigrettes and sauces. These are the things you would find in any Greek grandmother kitchen if you started rummaging around.

These are the recipes I’ll definitely be trying.

I must say that I really loved “How to Roast a Lamb.” The recipes are clean and delicious, but more importantly, I think the book gives you a sense of the respect that the Greek culture has for food. It’s something that I really admire and I feel like everyone can learn something from their simple and flavorful take on food.

Use quality ingredients, appreciate those ingredients, enjoy those ingredients with people you care about. Who doesn’t want to do those things?! That’s what this book is about and if you agree with that then you’ll love this book.

8 comments on “Review: How to Roast a Lamb

  1. Nick, a fair and inviting review. I've only tried a few recipes but I'm eager to explore more of Psilakis' recipes in the New Year.

  2. I've had the pleasure to meet Chef Psilikis a couple of times and enjoy tasting menus at both Anthos and Kefi though I haven't seen the book yet. Your review is enticing and very well-written though I think the title of the book is a little misleading and one-dimensional…however, it obviously hasn't hurt sales if they're already out of print.

  3. Have fun in Wyoming! It has been too long since we have been home. This year we are going to Mexico instead. We are already sick of the cold Wyoming and South Dakota weather. Safe travels, enjoy the family time.

  4. I can so relate to the comment of the smell of vegetables. Growing up my Aunt and Uncle had 13 kids. They had a huge garden. I loved going over there and help pick tomatoes, green beans, corn, zucchini and so on. I clearly remember the smell. Its something I haven't smelled on fresh produce since. Even organic produce.

  5. Wow Nick, what don't you do???

    Not knowing you very long what or when's

    your book coming out????…… That I would buy

    to all Macheesmo'ers. be well. Happy holidays and new year especially in good health


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