This classic rustic dish is inspired by Andrea Antona’s Greek Cypriot origins and gets its name from the Kleftes, the Greek independence fighters of the 18th century who cooked the lamb in underground fires in their hillside hideouts.

They buried the whole lamb deep in the embers of the fire and covered it with earth so that the aromas of the meat and the smoke wouldn’t give them away.

Throughout Greece and Cyprus you’ll find hundreds of variations of Kleftico, using a mixture of wild thyme, oregano, bay, garlic and lemon with large bone-in pieces of lamb from the leg or shoulder. Some add tomatoes and other vegetables, others use slices of hard salty sheep’s milk cheeses like kefalotyri which is similar to pecorino.

The key to success with this dish is the slow cooking, whether it’s wrapped in foil or parchment parcels, cooked in the embers of a wood fired oven or barbecue or, like Andreas’ dad used to do, in a heavy casserole with a sheet of foil under the lid to prevent any steam escaping.

Andreas said: “My dad used shoulder of lamb, chopped into large individual portions, and cooked it with onions, bay leaves, oregano, salt and pepper and a dash of lager and water. It would cook for a minimum of two-and-a-half to three hours on a Sunday morning until the meat was virtually falling off the bone.”

Kleftico was one of the first dishes Andreas added to the Simpsons menu when he first opened in 1993 and it has undergone numerous make-overs over the years, its rustic heritage somewhat gentrified in keeping with the restaurant’s Michelin-starred status. But as Andreas points out, the principle of long slow cooking remains the same. And in this recipe, the lamb shanks benefit from a day’s resting in their fragrant cooking liquor before being finished off in the oven the following day.

The Swiss chard is another ingredient which features in Cypriot home cooking and most commonly is cooked with the new crop of black eyed beans in spring. You can use either dried beans soaked overnight or a tin of cooked beans that have been drained and rinsed.

Andreas says: “Simmer the two together in salted water until the chard is tender then drain and dress with lemon and good quality olive oil. It makes a delicious warm salad served alongside a really good tomato and onion salad, some olives and sourdough bread.”

The ingredients for Andreas Antona's dish of Lamb Kleftico with chick peas, Swiss Chard and Gremolata.
The ingredients for Andreas Antona's dish of Lamb Kleftico with chick peas, Swiss Chard and Gremolata.
 

Lamb Kleftico with swiss chard and gremolata (Serves 4)

Ingredients

*1 leek

* 1 onion, peeled

* 2 carrots

* 4 large lamb shanks

* 10 peppercorns

* 3 cloves garlic, lightly crushed

* 1 bay leaf

* 1 sprig fresh thyme

* A little olive oil

* A little clear honey

* 1 bunch Swiss chard

* A squeeze of lemon juice

* A good knob of butter

* 200g cooked (or canned and drained) chick peas

* 2 tablespoons gremolata (see recipe below)

* Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

The day before your meal, roughly chop the leek, onion and carrots. Place in a large flameproof casserole with the shanks, peppercorn, garlic, bay and thyme. Cover with cold water, add seasoning, bring to the boil then cover and cook on a gentle heat for 1 ½ -2 hours until the meat is very tender. Remove, cool and chill by placing the pan in a sink of ice cold water, and then store in the fridge.

Next day, heat the oven to 220C/Gas 8

Remove the shanks from the liquor and set aside. Strain the liquor, discarding the vegetables and herbs and boil it in a clean pan until it’s reduced down to 200ml.

Brush the cooked lamb shanks with a little oil and roast for about 12 minutes until piping hot and lightly browned. Remove, brush with some honey and return to the oven for another 5 minutes. Remove and keep warm.

For the chard, cut the stalks from the leaves and slice into 2cm lengths. Roughly slice the leaves. Boil the stalks first in the salted water with the lemon juice for 4 minutes. Boil the leaves separately in salted water for 1-2minutes. Drain and shake dry. Heat a knob of butter in a frying pan and sauté the blanched chard for a minute or two and check the seasoning.

Heat the chick peas with the gremolata and then add the reserved lamb liquor.

Gremolata (Makes about 80g)

Ingredients

* 100g flat leaf parsley

* 1 clove garlic, roughly chopped

* Grated zest 1 lemon

* About 3 tbsp olive oil

* Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Pick off the leaves off the parsley and blitz with the garlic with a hand held processor, drizzling in the oil until you have a rough purée. (use a mortar and pestle if you don’t have a processor) Season with salt and pepper.

Gremolata can be stored in a clean screw topped jar in the fridge for up to a week but it will oxidise and lose its vivid green colour so it’s best made fresh as required.

To serve

Place the lamb shanks in the centre of a large deep plate and put the chard and gremolata-scented chick peas around it.

Andreas’ Tips

Swiss chard could be substituted with large leaf (but not baby leaf) spinach or even spring greens for a robust flavour. An alternative to the chick peas would be soft polenta with butter and a little parmesan or garlic roast potatoes both of which will complement the Mediterranean flavours of the dish.

Suppliers

Most ingredients are readily available from supermarkets, although Swiss chard isn’t stocked by all of the big supermarket chains. However, Birmingham’s numerous Asian grocers sell all types of greens including chard and larger leaf spinach as well as huge bunches of flat leaf parsley for a fraction of supermarket prices. Simpsons meat is from Aubrey Allen butchers, Leamington Spa, visit: www.aubreyallen.co.uk

* Simpsons Restaurant, Highfield Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, Tel: 0121 454 3434, www.simpsonsrestaurant.co.uk

Andreas Antona's lamb shanks in gravy.
Andreas Antona's lamb shanks in gravy.

Kitchen Confidential with Andrea Antona

What’s your first food memory?

Big family get-togethers with the table groaning under the weight of traditional Greek and Cypriot dishes – moussaka, dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), pasticcio (a Greek version of lasagne using penne) kleftico, roast potatoes and salads.

Who taught you to cook?

As a child, in my dad’s steak house in West London, I learnt how to use a knife pretty early on and at the age of eight I was doing a lot of prep including slicing mushrooms, blanching and skinning tomatoes and even cooking steak and chips.  My father and grandfather had no formal training, but just picked up things as they went along and I learned a lot of basic skills from them before going to Ealing Technical College. My lecturer Alan Hayden was a brilliant teacher, tough but fair. He had had a career working in the West End’s best restaurants and was a skilled craftsman.

Favourite TV dinner

I eat whatever my wife Alison has cooked, but not while watching television.  Everyone – my son and three daughters – sits down together for a family meal in the evening. 

Favourite food to eat?

That’s an impossible question to answer, as it depends on the moment and the place. I suppose if I had to choose three things to have in abundance on a desert island it would be chicken (the very best Poulet de Bresse), rice and salad ingredients.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?

The master, Paul Bocuse, the three Michelin starred chef from Lyon. He was my idol and for most other chefs of my generation for his lifelong dedication to the art of cooking. That’s why it’s such a fantastic achievement that Adam (Bennett, Simpson’s head chef) has done so well in the annual Bocuse competition.

What’s your pet hate in the kitchen?

Parsnips and tofu.

Apart from a knife, what’s your go to gadget?

A hand held food processor for blitzing everything from soups to sauces, chopping herbs and grinding spices. 

Most memorable meals?

Another impossible question because life’s too short to choose any one thing. For me it’s all about discovery and so each new experience is the most memorable at that particular moment.  I went to Adrian Feria’s El Bulli  (Roses, Spain) twice in the six months before it closed and each of those occasions was an adventure of discovery from beginning to end.

Kitchen nightmare?

More of a front of house nightmare really.  It’s when a table of 10 turns up on a Saturday night, having asked me personally to book it, and I’ve forgotten to put it in the diary. Needless to say, we do manage to sort it out, but on behalf of the Maitre D’ who will kill me otherwise, can I just add that’s not an invitation to anyone to try and turn up on a busy Saturday without a booking. 

Famous customers?

We’ve had a few Prime Ministers and elder statesmen –including David Cameron and Lord Hurd and the two Simons – Cowell and Rattle.