Wild greens, or horta (χόρτα) are a staple in any Greek household. Stamnagathi (Cichorium spinosum), a Greek variety of wild chicory, in particular, is one of the more sought after leafy greens. Since this slightly-bitter vegetable grows mainly in the wild mountains on the island of Crete it meant that very few people could get it in the past, which explains why it is still treasured today. Stamnagathi can be consumed either raw in a salad, boiled and drizzled with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice, or cooked together with meat. My friend Yanna, whom hails from Crete (and whom a few years ago also instructed me on how to make pickled hyacinth bulbs), recently taught me how to make arni me stamnagathi, a traditional Cretan dish made with the treasured dark-green wild chicory, juicy lamb meat (young goat can be used as well) and a tart, refreshing lemon sauce (recipe can be found at the bottom of this post).
My ‘education’ in Cretan cuisine was supposed to start a little over two years ago, but then the pandemic hit and this meeting of foodies was postponed until a few weeks ago, when, one Sunday morning, I finally took the metro to the suburbs of Athens to start my lessons. Yanna and I first went to pick up the lamb from the butcher before making our way to her house where I was greeted by a half-dozen kittens, a fragrant lemon tree, Yanna’s little nephew, and the lady of the house: Yanna’s lovely mother. After a warm welcome with Greek coffee and a homemade spoon sweet made by Yanna’s mother (yum!), it was time to start preparing the food.
Whilst Yanna was cleaning and preparing the meat and I was being useless by hovering and taking photographs of said meat and vegetables, Yanna’s mother cleaned all of the stamnagathi and was preparing to make katsikaki tsigariasto (goat in red wine; another typical Cretan dish for which I will make a separate post later) and plenty of other delicious side dishes as I found out later at lunchtime (magic, really).
With all of her experience, Yanna’s mother had cleaned the stamnagathi in a relatively short time, but the same amount of horta would have taken me ages to clean as each little root needs to be carefully cut without the little bunches falling apart and the leaves themselves can be very sandy and need to be washed and rinsed plenty of times… if you are similarly less-experienced with the task you’d do well to start on time when you want to prepare horta for lunch or dinner.
Another note on horta: should you boil the leafy greens without meat, the leftover cooking liquid from most wild greens can be drunk as a healthy and warming beverage – not unlike a bitter herbal tea or simple vegetable broth. Yanna showed me that the dark ‘tea’ from stamnagathi in particular – some of which we had boiled without meat to have as another side dish – magically changes colour (it becomes a lighter instantly) once lemon juice is added. We drank this ‘magical elixir’ with fresh lemon juice from lemons from the garden, a few drops of extra-virgin olive oil and a tiny pinch of salt whilst we were waiting for our arni to get nice and tender.
After a few hours of hard work (not on my part, but thanks to the two Cretan ladies) and a lot of laughs, we sat down to a lovely lunch of arni me stamnagathi and katsikaki tsigariasto served with a cheesy pilafi, omelette with siglino (a cured salted pork charcuterie from Crete), plenty of plump olives, Cretan cheese and a good glass of wine — a perfect Sunday lunch, if you ask me.
Note: the lemon sauce can be either made with lemon and egg (avgolemono) or with lemon and flour (we did the latter) – both methods will result in a rich and creamy sauce, with the avgolemono just being slightly richer (if that’s what you like). The method for each sauce is pretty much the same, except that you have to be a tad more careful when making avgolemono to avoid the egg from scrambling or becoming lumpy in the hot liquid. Avgolemono also doesn’t reheat very well, so keep that in mind in case you are planning on eating leftovers the next day.
Yanna’s Arni me Stamnagathi / Αρνί με Σταμναγκάθι (Cretan Lamb with Wild Spiny Chicory and Lemon Sauce)
- 1kg lamb (bones in, shoulder or leg), chopped into chunks
- 500g – 750g stamnagathi, the greens wilt slightly so add as much as you like
- 125ml olive oil
- 1 large yellow or red onion, diced
- Salt + black pepper, to taste
- 2 large lemons
- 1 heaped tablespoon plain flour
- Clean the stamnagathi by cutting (part of) the little root/stalk at the bottom of each bunch and by removing any ugly or discoloured leaves. You can separate the leaves if you want, but it’s nice to keep the bunches whole, if you can. Wash the leaves well by placing them in a large bowl or sink with water, some salt and a splash of vinegar. Leave for 5 minutes then rinse the leaves well in cold water until you can no longer see any sand (change the water a few times).
- In a large bowl or stockpot, add chopped lamb and cover with cold water. Add a teaspoon of salt and soak the meat for 5 minutes, then drain and rinse under cold water. The soaking cleans the meat from blood, gristle and leftover hairs that may stick to the outside of the meat. Pat dry the meat.
- Heat olive oil in a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Brown the meat on all sides, then add the diced onion, salt and a generous amount of black pepper. Sauté until the onion has softened and browned.
- Add water to the stockpot until two-thirds of the meat is covered. Cover with a lid and allow to simmer over low heat for 1 hour or until the meat is tender. Stir the meat occasionally whilst cooking.
- Once the meat is tender, add the cleaned stamnagathi to the same pot. Allow leaves to wilt and soften, uncovered, for 15 – 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- In a bowl, combine the juice of 2 large lemons with a heaped tablespoon of plain flour (alternatively, use a beaten egg instead of flour to make avgolemono). Very slowly pour a ladleful (or two) of hot cooking liquid from the meat and stamnagathi into the bowl with the lemon-flour mixture whilst stirring continuously (be especially slow with the pouring when using egg instead of flour) until you’ve got a warm liquid without any lumps.
- Once the stamnagathi has cooked to your wanted consistency, pour the lemon ‘sauce’ into the pot and shake the pot until the sauce is well incorporated with the rest of the liquid. Allow to heat through and thicken for a minute or two, then remove from heat. If the contents of the pot are very hot, you may have to remove the pot from the heat before adding the sauce (especially with avgolemono): the sauce should thicken into a slightly-creamy consistency, but should not get lumpy or burn.