Lately I have been craving Greek food–rich casseroles of moussaka, pastitsio, octopus stew, and above all baked orzo bobbing with herby meatballs. It’s not soul food for me in the sense that I certainly didn’t grow up on such exotic fare. But it is memory-food all the same. You see, when I was the ripe old age of 17, my parents shipped me off to Greece as part of AFS, a foreign exchange program, mostly to get rid of me, but also to “broaden my horizons,” which meant they hated my boyfriend.
When I announced the news to my small town friends, they were horrified. I was going to be missing the whole summer, they warned me. A summer, I remember pointing out to them, that would consist of driving around the McDonald’s parking lot trying to find out where the parties were.
I was placed with a host family completely randomly. Fortunately, the foodie gods smiled down upon me: I was placed with Nicolas and Despina Kritharalis retired pastry chefs/bakery owners in far northern Greece on the Aegean sea. They brought me in to teach their athletic, super- hyper daughter Penny how to speak English. That didn’t really work, since Penny was too busy at the track practicing her discus throwing and javelin skills (I kid you not).
In the meantime, I spent most of my time in the kitchen watching Despina and Nicolas cook. I had no idea what they were saying, but I wrote down what they were doing. I still have that sauce-stained Hello Kitty notebook, and it is full of really great Greek recipes that I learned by watching. This week, I give you their baked orzo with lamb meatballs.
It’s a particularly good recipe if you’re busy because the orzo bakes in broth with vegetables and a good amount of oregano and dill, no boiling and draining necessary. Despina would add braised lamb chunks or Keftedes— tender, almost creamy meatballs seasoned with fresh mint and oregano. If you don’t have the time, you can buy premade beef or turkey meatballs instead. For Mr. Tofu, I bake a separate gratin of orzo with Nate’s Mushroom Meatballs, which he always eats second helping of.
Ah, Greece. I have such fond memories of the 3 hour lunches on the Kritharalis‘ patio overlooking the Aegean sea. The stewed goat, olive oil french fries, octopus in red wine, little donut holes soaked in honey syrup. Was I ever homesick? Did I miss my boyfriend or driving around with my friends in old station wagons? Uh, no. Instead, I got to dive off rocks into the sea, go to discos until 3 in the morning, and eat the best Greek food on the planet. I gained 10 pounds, and I’ll never regret a bite of it.
Greek Baked Orzo and Meatballs or Eatballs
Serves 1 to 2 vegetarians and 3 omnivores
For the orzo:
2 tablespoons Greek olive oil
1 1/2 cups finely chopped onion
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 small green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
3 cloves finely chopped garlic
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried dill
1 1/2 cups orzo
4 1/3 cups water mixed with 4 teaspoons Harvest Vegetarian Chicken Broth Bouillon Powder
4 ounces creamy feta cheese, crumbled (for topping pasta last ten minutes of baking)
For the meatballs and eatballs:
1 slice of sandwich bread, torn into tiny pieces
3 tablespoons plain yogurt
8 ounces lean ground lamb
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic, smashed to a paste
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoons minced fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1 egg yolk
3 tablespoons finely crumbled feta cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Greek olive oil, divided
7 prepared vegetarian meatballs (such as Nate’s brand mushroom meatballs)
Preheat oven to 350°. Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions, celery, and bell peppers and saute until onion is tender, 8 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano and dill, saute 20 seconds. Add the tomatoes and simmer for 1 minute. Take pan off of the heat and add the orzo. Stir to combine.
Transfer 3 cups of the orzo-vegetable mixture to a 2-quart capacity baking dish and pour 3 1/3 cups of the bouillon mixture over the orzo. Transfer to oven.
Vegetarian: Pour the remaining 1 cup of the orzo-vegetable mixture to a 4-cup baking dish. Add the remaining bouillon mixture and transfer to the oven.
Bake the orzo for 30 minutes. While the orzo is baking, make the meatballs. Combine the bread and yogurt in a medium bowl and allow it to soften for a few minutes. Add the ground beef, garlic, onion powder, oregano, mint, egg yolk, cheese, salt, and pepper and squish and stir until the mixture is well blended. Form into small meatballs.
Vegetarian: Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a saute pan over medium high heat. Add the eatballs and cook until browned on all sides. Transfer to a plate.
Return the pan to medium heat, add the remaining tablespoon of oil and when it is hot, add the meatballs. Cook until browned on all sides and nearly cooked through, 10 minutes. Drain.
Take the baking dishes out of oven and stir pasta gently. Add the eatballs to the small baking dish, pushing them into the pasta slightly. Add the meatballs to the larger baking dish. Sprinkle both dishes with the feta cheese and continue to bake until the sauce is bubbling, 10 minutes. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving, the pasta will absorb moisture as it cools.