Easter is my favorite holiday of all. From the start of Lent on Clean Monday to Easter Sunday, the days are rich with meaning and purpose. And each year, I can’t help but feel a distinct sense of renewal as we partake in all the religious traditions, the cultural celebrations and the family gatherings associated with this beautiful holiday.
Holy Week symbolizes an important week of religious observances and preparations for the holiday; there are church services held twice daily and on some days morning, afternoon and evening. In our family, we attend church on Palm Sunday and then enjoy the traditional bakaliaro and skordalia at my parents’ home. On Holy Wednesday we attend church for The Sacrament of Holy Unction. On Holy Thursday we dye our eggs the traditional shade of red symbolizing the blood of Christ and then attend church that night to hear the 12 Gospel readings and to venerate the crucifix. The afternoon of Good Friday, a day of strict fasting, we attend The Vespers services where the body of Christ is taken down from the cross, shrouded, then carried around the church and placed on the Epitaphio adorned with beautiful flowers and foliage. That evening we follow–along with hundreds of parishioners–the Epitaphio in a procession of mourning around the neighborhood of our church. Finally on Great Saturday we again attend church early in the morning to receive communion and that night (just before midnight) we all gather in the church’s courtyard, the children with their decorated Lambades (Easter candles) and the adults with simple wax candles, and await to hear our priest begin singing the Hymn of Resurrection, Christos Anesti (Christ has Risen), as the clock strikes twelve and the holy light makes its way through the congregation as candle after candle is lit. From there we go home to break the fast and enjoy a feast of Patsa (tripe soup), fried liver and sweetbreads, cheeses, salad, etc. before going to bed and awakening renewed and refreshed to celebrate Easter Sunday.
The preparation of our lamb begins on Great Saturday. For many, many generations we have followed the traditional way of making lamb on this special occasion. This rich lamb dish is known as Mouri on the island of Kalymnos and it is something I began making a few years ago after I was first married, following in the footsteps of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents before them. Mouri consists of a whole lamb stuffed with a mixture of rice, ground meat, chopped lamb liver, tomato, pine nuts, onion and plenty of cinnamon. Traditionally, the stuffed lamb is placed in an outdoor oven and sealed to cook slowly beginning early Great Saturday, through the night and onto the early morning of Easter. It is then unsealed to reveal fragrant, utterly moist lamb meat accompanied by a flavorful stuffing infused with all the flavors of the lamb itself as well. This is a rustic dish with no pretentions, just wonderful flavors that bring on a flood of emotions and memories with every bite as it has been made with such care and love for so long.
We improvise, of course, as we don’t have an outdoor brick oven (yet!) and we cook our lamb in our regular oven within an enormous roasting pan sealed well with aluminum foil. The aroma of the lamb slowly cooking from Great Saturday is indescribable. You can view a short video of a lamb being stuffed on Kalymnos here.
As it was my husband’s name day, we hosted Easter here at home. It turned out to be a nice Spring day here in New York and we got to enjoy some Kokoretsi (seasoned lamb or goat sweetbreads, heart, liver and/or kidney skewered, wrapped in the animal’s small intestine and roasted), a simple Bacon and Onion Tart, some Herbed Goat Cheese atop Greek Rusks, an Olive and Caper Tapenade, Anchovies and Fresh Baked Bread in our backyard while the children played on the lawn.
We moved inside to enjoy the Mouri accompanied by Asparagus and Shiitake Mushrooms tossed in butter and parsley and an amazing Lettuce, Fennel, Parsley and Dill Salad with a Honey Vinaigrette inspired from a recipe on the Greek web site, Kathimerini.