Arni Youvetsi

Another package arrives from mum-in-law. What could it be? There is no regularity to when these gifts arrive or what they are…it depends on the ebb and flow of her impulses and what she comes across while shopping, so it is always a surprise. At any given day, the doorbell will buzz, her driver will pop in with a parcel, and C and I will crowd around it and inspect our loot. As I peel off the wrappings, my Iron Chef face comes on (at least in my head): “Hmmm, it’s cold, hmmm, meat, hmmm, and the surprise ingredient is…lamb shank!

Wait. Did I say lamb shank? Only one of my most favorite kinds of meat around! I rubbed my hands together in glee. I already knew what it was fated to become. What better use for a favorite meat, than a favorite dish? A favorite Greek dish to be exact. Arni Youvetsi to be even more exact.

Arni Youvetsi, or lamb youvetsi, or giovetsi, is lamb baked with orzo (rice shaped pasta, like risoni) and tomato sauce. I fell madly in love with it in a Greek restaurant here, and when I finally made it to Greece, I wasted no time in eating my way through all the youvetsi’s they had to offer.

The recipe I used is adapted from Tessa Kiros’ Falling Cloudberries (I book that I adore). I changed the quantities a bit to suit our tastes (more garlic!) and the ingredients I had. Her recipe calls for lamb meat with no bone, but as the shanks looked like cute mini-osso buco’s, I wanted to include the whole thing.

Arni Youvetsi
(adapted from Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros)

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 750 grams lamb shank (not whole, cut crosswise as beef and veal shanks are)
  • 2 red onions, chopped
  • 4-5 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 400-gram tin of chopped tomatoes with juice
  • 1 400-gram tin of whole tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 40 grams butter
  • 500 grams orzo
  • 150-200 grams feta cheese
  • Freshly grated parmesan, to serve

- Heat olive oil in a heavy, oven-proof casserole and brown lamb on all sides. Remove meat and set aside.
- Add onions to the same casserole and sauté until soft, adding a little more oil if necessary.
- Add the garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes more, then return lamb to the pan.
- Add the tomatoes (crushed and whole). Stir and mash the whole tomatoes roughly with the back of your spoon. Salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the cinnamon stick and the butter, give it a stir, and then let it simmer for about 5 minutes.
- While your pot is simmering, take the reserved juice from the tomatoes, stick it in a measuring jug, and top up with water until you have 4 cups (1 liter). Heat the liquid first (I did this in a microwave) and then add to your pot.
- Cover and bake in an 180C/350F oven until lamb is tender.
- Rinse pasta in a sieve or colander and drain. Add to the pot once lamb is tender and stir through until well incorporated. Cover pot and return to oven for about 15-17 minutes, or until the pasta is cooked and has absorbed most of the sauce. You can add more hot water if it seems too dry. (pasta cooks longer in the oven, so a pasta that usually takes 7 minutes will take about 15 in the oven)
- Once done, remove from the oven and stir in crumbled feta while it’s still hot, so the cheese melts a bit. (this part is optional but I like it)
- Serve with freshly grated parmesan.

Just as it sounds and appears, this is no glamorous, sophisticated dish. It is hearty and comforting. A very Sunday-family-meal type of dish that you can imagine some robust Greek yaya (or yiayia – grandmother in Greek) making. This is not a summer sort of dish either. The fact that I made it in this blazing heat is a testament to how much I love it.

It seems like in the summertime, this not-so-young girl's mind turns to thoughts of...Greece...I promise to buy my brain a plane ticket to somewhere else soon...