Wednesday, January 14, 2015


It was getting late in the morning on Monday when I called Ann to ask about dinner. She generally has some ideas about what kind of food she'd like and those ideas always help focus my mind. I can cook anything I want to (if the ingredients are on hand) and my mind sometimes gets lost in the possibilities. It always helps to have Ann point in a particular direction.

And Monday morning she said, "Let's have pasta. What do you have?"

I started calling off shapes to her while browsing the pantry shelves: pappardelle, gemelli, lumaconi, casarecce, rigatoni, orzo.

"Orzo! Can you make yiouvetsi?"

Can I make yiouvetsi? Of course I can, if I have some lamb. And I just happened to be heading to Costco where they generally have legs of lamb.

Yiouvetsi Basics: Lamb, Onions, Garlic, Cinnamon, Tomatoes
A yiouvetsi is a baking dish, a Greek clay casserole, that has lent its name to a family of baked meat and pasta dishes. When Ann says "make me yiouvetsi," she means arni yiouvetsi, lamb and orzo. At the restaurant, we make vegetarian versions and seafood versions. Octopus yiouvetsi is a staff favorite.

The ingredients are simple and the procedure is simple as you will see in the recipe below. It all comes down to the quality of the ingredients, like most simple dishes. The bowl of yiouvetsi that you see below is incredible, the best that I have ever eaten or made, so good, in fact, that Ann went back for thirds.

Bowl of Heaven
Arni Yiouvetsi

This simple and classic dish of comfort food will require a large ceramic or other baking dish. As you can see above, I used my large oval cast iron cocotte. I use my cocotte so that I can start the dish on the stove and then go to the oven: one pan, not much to clean up. If you use ceramic, you will need a sauté pan in which to brown the meat and cook the onions and garlic. With full prep, cooking, and resting time considered, allow 2 and a half hours to make this dish. Active cooking and prepping is about an hour.

1/2 cup or more extra virgin olive oil
1 small leg of lamb, cubed, about 3 pounds
2 medium onions, diced
12 cloves garlic, minced
1 cinnamon stick
1-2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 quart tomatoes, diced in juice
1 lemon, juiced
salt to taste
1-2 quarts of water
1 pound of orzo
4 ounces kefalotyri or feta cheese

Preheat the oven to moderate, 350F. Heat a pan in which to brown the meat over high flame and then add the olive oil. You did not misread the quantity. The key quality that separates a yiouvetsi from other baked pastas is the oily, lemony slickness of the pasta. You want that much oil or possibly more.

Season and brown the lamb in batches and remove. Add the onions, garlic, cinnamon, and oregano to the pan. The reason I fudge the quantity of oregano is that my experience is that each type and batch of oregano is more or less potent. If you don't know your oregano, add some now and then taste and adjust later in the cooking process.

Once the onions are translucent, start deglazing your pan by adding some of the tomato juice and scraping all the bits off the bottom of the pan. If you are baking in this pan, go ahead and add all the tomatoes and lemon juice at this point. If not, transfer the onions to the baking dish and add the tomatoes and lemon juice. Add the lamb and cover with water.

If you are using a flame safe pan, bring the mixture to a slow boil before transferring to the oven for one hour. If you are using a ceramic dish, go ahead and put it in the oven at this point but cook it for 90 minutes instead of an hour.

Check the lamb for tenderness; check the liquid for seasoning; and fish out the cinnamon stick. If you are happy with the doneness of the lamb, add the orzo and stir. Return to the oven for 20 minutes.

Although feta is less commonly used than kefalotyri, I prefer feta. In either case, I like to cover the top of the casserole with the cheese and turn on the broiler to brown the cheese just slightly as you can see in the top photo above.

Let the yiouvetsi rest for 20 minutes or so before serving. Sprinkle or grate additional cheese over each portion as desired.

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