Greek Baked Orzo and Meatballs or "Eatballs"

Ahoy Foodies!

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.

8 Responses to Greek Baked Orzo and Meatballs or "Eatballs"

  1. Ginny Mahar October 23, 2009 at 8:13 PM #

    Beautiful narrative Ivy! Can’t wait to make this.

  2. John Mechalas October 24, 2009 at 2:00 AM #

    Oh man oh man oh man. I am eager to try this. You would think that, having grown up in a Greek family surrounded by a Greek community that I’d have all sorts of wonderful Greek recipes to enrich our lives, but sadly, that’s not the case. Trying to get recipes from people was a maddening experience, devoid of basic instructions, measurements, and explained in a hand-waving fashion that glossed over ingredients and preparation. If I even got as much as “you just mix some lemon and oil in with the chicken and bake it” that was a major accomplishment.

  3. Ivy October 25, 2009 at 9:07 PM #

    Heh Ginny,

    Glad you like the little travel memories. Thanks for reading Ivy’s Feast!

  4. Ivy October 25, 2009 at 9:08 PM #

    Heh John

    I hear you on the vagueries of Greek cooking. If cooks keep secrets, how will we ever learn from each other, eh? Let me know how Elanor likes it.

  5. danazia October 29, 2009 at 2:45 AM #

    Geesh, why didn’t my parents think of that? They definitely hated my boyfriend and would of loved to ship me off to Greece! Oh well, I wonder if your exchange parents would take a 40 something empty nester and her hubby, oh and a dog, two cats and 9 chickens? Mean while, I’ll make your dish and dream of azure seas.

  6. Lizzy October 30, 2009 at 3:29 AM #

    I loved this story! And also the memories of Greece. I just got back from spending a month there and tried to get into multiple cooking classes while I was there, but as it was the end of the tourist season, I had no luck:( I’m definitely trying this recipe!

  7. Jessica November 15, 2009 at 6:38 PM #

    I love Greek food, and this looks delicious. I’m bookmarking the recipe and this will be made very soon. I’m so excited to try it. I’m making your braised cabbage from Farm to Table to have with dinner tonight.

  8. Ivy November 16, 2009 at 11:42 PM #

    Hi Jessica

    It certainly is cabbage weather, isn’t it? I love love love that red cabbage, especially with Austrian bread dumplings. Email me and I’ll send you the recipe 🙂

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