If you are Greek or have been in Greece for Easter, you know how important this holiday is, as the most important religious holiday in the Greek Orthodox Church. It symbolizes resurrection, which for a nation that was under occupation for 400 years is also proof of resilience and strength. This year, Orthodox Easter falls on the Sunday after Catholic & Protestant Easter, with the week before, Holy Week, overlapping with Passover, full of beautiful traditions and ceremonies. In fact, the Greek word for Easter and Passover are the same, "Pasha - Πάσχα", reflecting that close timing.
Even if Greeks haven't fasted during the preceding 40 days of Lent, where plant-based meals are the rule, a surprisingly large number still fast during Holy Week, and nearly all restaurants and food shops in Greece offer "fasting dishes", which are basically vegan food. During Holy Week, we prepare a special Easter bread (tsouréki) that looks like a French brioche only a little more sweet. On Holy Thursday we color our eggs, traditionally red to symbolize Jesus' blood, although these days many other colors decorate Greek homes. On Good Friday, every business and shop store is closed as a day of mourning, and at night, Greek churches take the service to the streets, with a candle-lit procession of Jesus's tomb (you may have seen the same in the parking lots of our Greek Orthodox churches here in the States). On Saturday at midnight the resurrection bells ring and we all go home with a candle lit from the church to bring blessings and good fortune to our homes.
As with most holidays, the culmination is in a family feast and for Greek Easter we have two! After the midnight service on Saturday night, the family breaks their Lenten fast and eats mageiritsa, a special Easter tripe soup (kind of like a Greek menudo!). We crack our eggs and eat our sweet tsoureki and koulouria Easter butter cookies. But the main event comes later Sunday afternoon, when extended families gather together for a day filled with jokes, laughter, music, and lots of food, including a whole roasted lamb on a spit!!
Since I moved to Cincinnati, we've been celebrating Easter with a group of Greek families, including Venia, whose recipe for a Greek coq au vin using Sparoza's spices and orange peel I shared last week. A good friend of ours would prepare a whole roasted lamb every single year, and everyone else would bring other traditional dishes for the day....a Greek Easter potluck! We would spend the whole day together, eating, talking, and playing games with the kids in a very typical Greek way. Eventually our lamb-roasting friends moved out-of-state and my husband and I took over the hosting - no whole lamb on a spit, I must admit, but we did our best to honor the Greek Easter traditions.
It's pandemic year, so we can't celebrate Easter with family or friends and we will miss that. But we'll do the best next thing, we'll gather around a virtual table and eat together, chat and laugh, and do whatever we did before, just from a distance. Since nobody can roast a whole lamb, I'll prepare a lamb youvétsi for the three of us at home - it's a classic Greek oven-baked dish with meat cooked in a tomato-based sauce and baked with orzo. We have several youvetsi recipes on our blog because it is such a classic Greek dish - try an Easy stovetop Shrimp Youvetsi, a youvetsi as part of an easy Easter menu for two...we even have award-winning Chef Apostolos Atlanis' seafood youvetsi if you are up for a more sophisticated version!
But this is a week for traditions, so I'm following the classic youvetsi recipe that can be prepared with lamb or beef, whichever you prefer. The all-natural flavors of Elli & Manos' sauces and Agrozimi's robust orzo give a wonderful texture and taste. Try it yourselves, regardless of what you're celebrating this week - Happy Easter or Καλό Πάσχα, as we say in Greek!
2 lbs lamb shoulder or lamb leg cut in 2" cubes (or the equivalent of beef)
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes or 1 1/2 cups of fresh diced tomatoes
1 cup Agrozimi Egg & Milk Orzo
5 cups of warm water
2-3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
Heat 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil in a big pot or Dutch oven.
Brown half of the meat, making sure it's nicely browned on all sides. Set aside on a plate and brown the second batch. You may need to add more olive oil for the second batch. Set aside on the plate.
Add the onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes until translucent, then add the garlic and sauté for a minute. Add the meat to the pot, salt and pepper to taste, and stir well. Add the diced tomatoes and the Elli & Manos jar to the mix. Bring to a boil and then lower to medium-low and let it simmer. Depending on the meat, you may need to add half to a cup of warm water for the sauce to be nice and thick but not get dry while cooking. Once the meat is cooked and tender, turn off the heat.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Put the orzo in a pyrex or baking dish, add the meat with all of its sauce, plus 5 cups of warm water. If you used a Dutch oven for your meat, you can just add the orzo and the water straight to the pot and put it straight in the oven.
Bake for 25-30 minutes, sprinkle with the cheese, and continue baking for another 10-15 minutes, until the pasta is cooked. Remove from the oven and enjoy!
PS. Don't leave the youvetsi in the oven once it's done. The heat will continue cooking the pasta and absorbing the liquids and it might dry out. You don't want it to be too liquidy but you don't want to be dry neither. If you like the herbal flavor of thyme, try the dish with the Tomato & Thyme version of Elli & Manos Greek Flavor Bursts, and welcome the Greek spring countryside into your kitchen!
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