This recipe is really an evolution of an old family recipe. I am including each step along the way, so bonus to you dear reader is you get several versions to try out and decide what you like best.
Part of my heritage on my mother's side is Greek. My maternal grandparents both passed when I was young, so there isn't a lot of "dinner at grandma's" in my memories. So, I don't really know what they ate. The one exception is this dish. My mother got this recipe from her mother and prepared it on special occasions. I loved it and it was something she prepared when I was going to visit if it wasn't Thanksgiving or some other holiday with a proscribed menu. So it's become one of my comfort foods.
It's called minesta and is basically a roast lamb shoulder with orzo pasta in a tomato sauce.
I have no idea how close this is to what my grandmother actually made. I remember seeing the original 3x5 card my mother made of the recipe, but it's lost to the mists of time. My mother made a couple of changes, as have I.
The biggest change was in the meat, my mother (and maybe others) weren't big fans of lamb. It's an uncommon thing to find in supermarkets in Greater Suburbia. It's also rather expensive. Instead, she used beef chuck roast. Similar flavor and texture, though larger and boneless.
The other major change is in preparation. Originally, you'd cook a roast in a roasting pan in the oven. You know, that place you store pans and stuff. It would take 2-3 hours depending on the size of the roast. That limits the meal to something for a weekend dinner. Working full time as she did and with 2 kids, the weekends weren't exactly conducive to lengthy operations in the kitchen.
Sometime in the 1980s crockpots/slow cookers became a thing. A roast like this would take 6-8 hours to cook. This may sound counter-intuitive but making it take longer made it easier to make. Because now you could put it together in the morning and let it go until you got home from work. This had 2 additional benefits: 1) the lower cooking temperature meant cleaning the pan was a lot easier and 2) the window where it's "done" but not "overdone" is really quite wide. A much more forgiving situation if you were nervous about ruining a meal. So once she had one of these wondrous devices, she used it instead of roasting in a pan in the oven.
- 2-3 lbs Lamb Roast or Beef Chuck Roast
- (1) 29 oz. can crushed or pureed tomatoes (not sauce)
- 16 oz. uncooked Orzo pasta
- Random Italian/Greek spices (parsley, oregano, rosemary, and thyme)
- 2 cups broth (usually Beef)
- Put the roast in the pan (or slow cooker) and cover it with the tomatoes and sprinkle on the spices
- Cook it until it's done (but leave the oven/cooker on)
- Remove the roast, cut it up into small pieces and put it somewhere it will stay warm but not eaten by the dogs
- Stir the orzo into the juices/tomatoes, cover and let it heat
- How long? Well...that depends. I like my pasta done, so that's about 30 minutes in a slow cooker on high. If you like yours chewy, I'm sorry, al dente, then stop it whenever it's where you like it.
- Orzo soaks up a lot of liquid. Perhaps more than you actually have. This is where the broth comes in, add it as needed while the pasta is cooking. You are aiming for something that's basically a thick stew. It's OK to err on the more fluid side, the orzo will win eventually no matter what you do.
- Return the meat to the pan and get it back up to temperature and then serve.
The leftovers are really good as well, though they will be drier as noted. You can fix that with more broth as you reheat it or just go with it.
Qualities on the spices? Eh, I never was very good about measuring this stuff. I've developed a feel for what I want in flavor and intensity and add appropriately. Lacking that experience, I'd start with a teaspoon of each, perhaps more like a tablespoon of parsley. If you have fresh herbs, that's better, but you'll probably want to add more for the same effect. It's basically impossible to ruin this dish short of dumping in a whole bottle of something. There's fairly wide latitude to the flavor profile. If it ends up too strong, add beef broth or tomatoes (or both) to dilute it some. Don't worry, the orzo will still win and soak it all up given time.
Curious about the roots of this dish I did a little searching online. And...this dish doesn't show up. At least not with this spelling. Now, command of the language is not a strong suit in my family so it's entirely possible it's misspelled. So, more searching.
This first intriguing recipe I found was for Manestra. This is essentially the above recipe if you skip the whole roasting meat part and include onions and garlic. That's not what we're looking for, but I made it and it's great. A keeper, for sure.
The second interesting find is Youvetsi which is closer to what we have but is usually made with chicken. Pfft. I have not made that yet, but I might. One day.
The final interesting find was Greek Lamb and Orzo. This isn't baked, it's made in a pan with ground lamb and it's topped with bits of Feta cheese. That looks quite interesting and I will give that a try.
Like many cultural traditions, much is lost in both time and translation. Not to mention that availability of ingredients (orzo is not very common these days). Mixing meat, tomato sauce, and pasta, it's hard to go wrong. Try some of these.