Youvetsi (sometimes spelled Giouvetsi) may be the most comforting Greek meal you will ever eat. There is nothing presumptuous or complicated here, nothing overly sophisticated. Youvetsi is simply a plate full of goodness which will delight your palate and warm your belly. And you’ll wonder, how could such simple ingredients come together to prepare something so reminiscent of love and home?
Youvetsi is a baked stew-like dish which usually combines orzo (κριθαράκι) and meat in a tomato based sauce. Orzo is a magical pasta, typically made of durum wheat semolina. It’s adorably small and oval shaped, making it perfect for soaking up the flavours that it thoroughly gets coated with in this dish. In this recipe, we chose to use chicken drumsticks and thighs as the meat component. Although other sources of protein can also be used (resulting in many variations of this super supper) we chose to use these pieces of chicken because of their easy availability and low cost. That is always a good thing.
Orzo is a wonderful pasta but it has some issues. In this recipe the orzo is cooked in the liquid in which it will be served. Because of this, and the fact that it is not rinsed, the starch found on each tiny piece seeps into the sauce. The up-side to this (and it is a very big up-side) is that you end up with a thick, creamy tomato sauce. The down-side is that you can end up with individual orzo pastas which clump together to create an orzo ball. This is something which is especially prone to happen as your youvetsi sits and cools.
There are a couple of ways to deal with clumpy orzo. The first is to ensure that the orzo is stirred relatively regularly in the baking pan while it cooks. This will prevent not only premature clumping, but it will also help keep the orzo from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Second, if you find that your sauce really is too thick and your orzo too clumpy, simply add some hot water or warmed up tomato juice. If you have leftovers, don’t panic when you take your youvetsi out of the refrigerator to serve. It will appear to have congealed into a solid mass. This is fine and will resolve itself once you heat your youvetsi in the microwave or on the stovetop. You may or may not need to add some water at this point, depending upon how thick your sauce is.
The recipe below serves 8 people generously. We decided to present it this way because that is the quantity our parents usually cook for when making youvetsi. Feel free to halve, or even quarter the recipe if you like. The beauty of cooking (versus baking) uncomplicated recipes such as this one is that you can evenly modify quantities without altering the end result.
Youvetsi can be a very easy and economical way to serve a crowd. It is especially delicious when you have some freshly ground mizithra sprinkled on it. Isn’t everything?
Mia Kouppa: Youvetsi with chicken
- 8 chicken thighs
- 8 chicken drumsticks
- 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 60 ml Greek olive oil
- 2 3/4 cups homemade tomato sauce or tomato juice
- 7 1/2 cups boiling water
- 500 grams orzo
- 2/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Heat vegetable oil in a deep frying pan so that you can brown the chicken pieces. Oil should be approximately 1/2 inch deep in pan.
- Prior to placing chicken in frying pan, remove any excess fat and overhanging skin. Squeeze the juice of one lemon over all the chicken pieces, on all sides. Sprinkle evenly with salt and pepper.
- Cook chicken pieces until all sides are nicely browned, approximately 5 – 7 minutes per side (remember, you are not cooking the chicken through, simply frying the skin).
- Once all of the chicken is browned, transfer the pieces to a baking pan. We used a round roasting pan which was approximately 15 inches in diameter.
- To the pan add olive oil, tomato juice, and boiling water. Sprinkle with cinnamon.
- Place in bottom rack of oven and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes
- Carefully remove the pan from the oven and add the uncooked orzo. Stir carefully. Return pan to oven.
- After 10 minutes, carefully stir the orzo in the pan as it will have a tendency to stick to the bottom. We found that the easiest way to do this was with a spatula (easy to scrape up the orzo pieces stuck to the bottom of the pan), using an oven mitt, while the pan was still in the oven. Alternatively you can place the pan onto the stove top, mix, and then return to the oven. Repeat this every 5 minutes for the next 15 minutes.
- The total cooking time after adding the orzo should be 25 minutes.
- If at any point after adding the orzo, your meal appears too dry, you can add a bit of boiling water and mix well.
- Remove from oven, let cool slightly and serve.