arni yiouvetsi (lamb baked with orzo)Posted: April 10, 2013
Sometimes I enjoy exquisite meals in restaurants that I would never try to recreate at home, that I am happy to experience thoroughly in the moment and then leave behind. Other times I try something I love and then become fixated on figuring out how to make it myself. This recipe – lamb braised in a pot with orzo – fits into the second category. I first had this at the same restaurant in Central Jersey, Pithari Taverna, that inspired these lemon potatoes. When I moved to Jersey City, I thought this meal would be like the first kind I described above, something magical that could only be relived in memory, until I discovered recently that it’s actually a fairly common Greek recipe that could easily be found with a quick Google search.
I knew that the tomato sauce at Pithari had a distinctly non-Italian taste to it, but for the longest time I had no idea what special ingredient gave it such a different flavor profile. The answer? Cinnamon. To people only used to adding cinnamon to desserts or sugary breakfast foods, this might sound like a weird spice to put in a savory recipe – but paired with lamb and tomatoes, it contributes a warm, earthy, and peculiarly Greek flavor.
Unfortunately, I somehow managed not to get any good shots of the lamb itself when I was taking photos. It’s there somewhere in that pile of orzo. After two and a half hours of slow braising in the oven, it is meltingly tender and falls apart if you poke it. Though this meal is baked in a clay pot at Pithari, which I am sure adds some extra-special something-or-other to it, don’t let not having one be an excuse not to try this – I used my stainless steel, and was blown away by how exactly like the version from my favorite far away Greek restaurant this tasted.
I pulled bits and pieces from two different recipes I found online and put them together to make this recipe – I used spice proportions from one recipe, while the addition of a glass of white wine to deglaze the pan from the other sounded like a brilliant idea. I stuck with the “glass of wine” measuring unit, too – this is a homey, comforting recipe, and you should feel free to tweak ingredient quantities to suit your own tastes. You can use lamb shanks or part of the leg – it’s better if whatever you use has the bone still attached, but I have yet to find leg of lamb with the bone, so you can also go without and do just fine.
2 1/2 lbs leg of lamb
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion
1 medium carrot
2 stalks celery
4 cloves garlic
1 glass white wine (probably about 2/3 cup, if you really have to measure – red wine would also work!)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 28 oz. can tomato puree
1 1/2 cups water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
6 whole cloves
1/2 – 3/4 pound orzo
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 350F / 170C. Clean the lamb and trim any excess fat, then pat dry with paper towels. Heat a large oven-safe stainless steel pot over medium heat (a dutch oven would work here – a Le Creuset would work magic if you have one. I used a stainless steel stock pot). Add the two tablespoons olive oil (or however much you need to thinly coat the bottom of the pan). When the oil is shimmering, add the lamb and brown each side thoroughly. Remove the lamb to a plate.
Meanwhile, mince the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Once you’ve removed the lamb from the pot, add in the minced onion, carrot, and celery, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until soft and browned, about 5-6 minutes. Add the minced garlic and stir for about 30 seconds, until the garlic is fragrant (you don’t want it to brown!). Pour in the glass of wine. Add the tomato paste and stir until it is dissolved. Then add the tomato puree, 1 1/2 cups water, 1 tsp cinnamon, the whole cloves, and 4-5 sprigs of thyme. Season well with salt and pepper. Return the lamb to the pot, and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, and place in oven for about 2 1/2 hours – the lamb should be very tender, and falling off the bone if you have one.
Remove the pot from the oven and add about 1/2 pound of orzo. Crumble as much feta as you would like into the pot. Stir, and return to the oven uncovered for 15 minutes. The orzo will soak up the sauce and expand. When you take the pot out, if you find you want some more orzo, go ahead and add a bit more and return the pot to the oven for another 15 minutes – you don’t want any of that sauce going to waste.
Once the lamb is done, remove the thyme sprigs (and warn people to watch out for those cloves!). You could sprinkle additional feta onto individual servings, if you want. Enjoy your delicious lamb with a big green salad (we had spinach with some of the leftover feta) and a glass of red wine.
Leftovers reheat well if you heat some olive oil in a pan and reheat on the stovetop.