Entertaining

My Big Fat Greek Easter

Live your best Greek life and feed a holiday crowd in style
Roast Leg of Lamb for Greek Easter
Photos: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

If you're not starting Easter dinner at 1 a.m., you're not doing it right—that is, if you're celebrating Greek Easter. 

"My Easter celebrations were just like the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We followed the traditions to a T," award-winning Greek chef and cookbook author Michael Psilakis says. For him, and many others, Easter is less about a floppy Easter bunny and more about boisterous family celebration, religious customs and, of course, a huge feast.

And don't worry. Following traditions doesn't mean finding a place to spin lamb on a spit (although that's definitely welcome). It's just as traditional to oven-roast lamb, Vefa Alexiadou explains in the recently released Greece: The Cookbook. The results, especially when you're using plenty of garlic and oregano, are delicious (see the recipe). (Psilakis recalls a particularly colorful attempt at spit-roasting in the suburbs of Long Island, in which everything was going well until the neighbors called the cops. They'd confused the lamb on the spit for a dog. Needless to say, the oven's a great alternative.)

As for the 1 a.m. feast, that's when families typically return from church on Holy Saturday and immediately dive into a bowl of magiritsaa traditional Easter soup that uses liver, intestines and sweetbreads, or basically everything that comes out of the lamb before roasting. It's meant to ease one back into feasting mode after the 40 days of fasting they were observing.

Other traditional dishes that ensure no lamb is left behind include kokoretsi, skewers of offal wrapped in more offal, and an herby omelet filled with various parts. For Nick Livanos, proprietor of the Livanos Restaurant Group, a family favorite is sautéed lamb's liver and kidneys. And George Pagonis, of Kapnos in D.C., plans to run a special like a grilled lamb heart souvlaki that reflects this whole-animal vision.

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The rest of the holiday feast might include some kind of potato dish, like wedges that have been marinated in lemon juice, oregano and garlic, and roasted until crisp and golden (see the recipe). And, of course, some kind of vegetable—for balance—like fennel sautéed and braised in tomato juice (see the recipe).

Some restaurants are honoring the late-night tradition by opening their doors for an honorary feast. New Yorkers can do so at Downtown spot Pylos; Miamians, at Meraki Greek Bistro. "The Greek traditions we grew up with are very much a part of our DNA," Giannis Kotsos, Meraki's co-owner and executive chef, says, and co-owner Alex Karavias even remembers one particular Easter celebration that included a feast every day for a week.

These meals are no small affair. Livanos will have 50 people at his house this year, and Pagonis laughs as he wryly says, "Greek families are pretty big." For Greek expert chef Maria Loi, of the eponymous Loi Estiatorio in New York, Easter sounds almost like the plot of Mamma Mia. "We would dance all over, traveling from one house to another, collecting people as we went and winding up with a group of 40 to 50 people."

In lieu of an Easter egg hunt, Greeks play a game called tsougrisma, which means "to clink together." Each person holds a red-dyed egg and they tap them together; whoever causes the other's to crack wins luck for the year. (Think of it like a wishbone contest but with the egg instead of the bird.)

Another place you'd find these red eggs is in tsoureki, a braided sweet bread that's similar to challah but made with spices like mahlab and mastic. It's served alongside cookies like mildly sweet, braided koulourakia—coffee's one true pairing. "When you thought you couldn't eat more, then the homemade pastries and coffee would start," Psilakis says.

You'll find these staples at Committee in Boston, where chef de cuisine Theo Tsilipanos is serving red eggs and tsoureki, as well as turning that sweet bread into French toast as part of his brunch specials. And since Greek Orthodox and Western Easter fall on the same day this year, Psilakis is going with a "ham vs. lamb" theme at his restaurants, MP Taverna and Kefi, with pulled lamb and pulled pig platters; Greek lemon potatoes; and artichokes, peas and dill.

Greek Easter is the rare example of a holiday that's withstood mass commercialization and, despite being heavily rooted in religion, is still just as fun. It's also simply a celebration of spring. "You can feel the essence of spring in your bones," Loi says, adding that at times, the chirping birds would be so loud they'd drown out the Greek music playing from the radio. It's a day of explosive brightness that balances out the austerity of Lent, celebrating both the changing season and the presence of family.

As Psilakis puts it, "These were the building blocks for my Greek pride. They were ingrained from the beginning."

This article was originally published on 4/12/2017 and updated on 4/4/2018. 

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