Tuesday 5 May 2009

Mike's Youvetsi: a Greek comfort food

This hearty Greek dish of slow-cooked lamb and tomatoes baked with rice-shaped pasta and firm white cheese is wonderful on a chilly autumn evening. Prepare everything in advance, or the day before, and put it in the oven to reheat half an hour before your guests arrive.

This dish comes from the repertoire of Mike and Michele Karamanof, the second local cooks to be featured in my 'South African Food Fundis' series. Click here to read about the Karamanofs.

Any cut of lamb suitable for long, slow cooking can be used - leg of lamb, shoulder of lamb, lamb shanks, or even lamb chops or ribs. 'Don't use a deboned leg of lamb, though,' says Mike, 'as you need the bone in, for flavour.'

If you like, you can marinate the lamb in the olive oil, garlic, oregano and a little white wine for a few hours before it goes into the oven.

There are many variations of this traditional dish - some include onions, cinnamon, cloves, red wine, bay leaves and so on; add more flavourings as you see fit

This is Mike's version, which I think is perfect as it is, tasting only of its key ingredients: lamb and tomato. If you can't find Greek kefalotyri cheese, use a firm feta. 

Mike's Youvetsi
A leg or shoulder of lamb, or 6 lamb shanks (see notes above)
3 T (45 ml) olive oil
2 T (30 ml) good dried oregano
the juice of a lemon
salt and milled black pepper
4 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)
10 large, ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 x 500 g packet Orzo (or similar rice-shaped pasta)
2 cups (500 ml) cubed kefalotyri cheese or feta cheese

Preheat the oven to 200°C. Place the lamb in a large ovenproof dish or cast-iron casserole dish. If you're using lamb shanks, place them in a single layer in a roasting pan. Pour the olive oil over the top of the lamb and sprinkle with oregano and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Place in the oven, uncovered, and roast at 200°C for half an hour, or until the lamb is beginning to brown on top. Tilt the pan and drain all but about 3 tablespoons of fat away. Now arrange the chopped tomatoes and garlic around the lamb, turn down the heat to 120°C, and return the dish, uncovered, to the oven.

Cook for three to five hours (the cooking time will depend on the size of the leg or lamb pieces) or until the meat is fork-tender and falling away from the bone. Baste the meat occasionally with the pan juices while it's roasting.

Remove the meat from the dish and pull it into shreds or chunks - how big these are is up to you. Discard the bones.  Pile the meat onto a plate, cover, and set aside.

Place the roasting pan on the hob over a medium heat. Add six cups of water (or a mixture of white wine and water, if you like). Bring to the boil, scraping at the bottom of the pan to loosen any residue. Tip in the orzo and cook briskly, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is soft and has absorbed most of the liquid. You may have to add more liquid at this point if the mixture seems dry: it should be about the consistency of a risotto: not stiff or dry, but not swimming in liquid. Season with salt and pepper, tip in the reserved lamb pieces and three quarters of the cubed cheese, and mix gently. Scatter the remaining cheese over the top.

Pile the mixture into an earthenware or ceramic dish (about 10 cm deep is ideal) and cover. When you're ready to serve, place in a low oven (110°C) for half an hour, or until heated right through. Serve with a crisp green salad.

Serves 8 
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