Sunday, 8 January 2012

The perfect Greek roast meat (Το τέλειο ψητό στο φούρνο)

Our New Year's meal - much to my chagrin - was cooked in the conventional oven. I was looking forward to using our wood-fired oven heater for cooking on New Year's Day, but my husband decided against it. The rain started before we could install a T-pipe on the outside flue pipe, so there is simply what looks like a spout coming up like a chimney. As the smoke comes out of the flue pipe, some condensation is returning into the chimney and running back down into the oven. It seems like only a trickle at the moment, and it certainly isn't making its way into the oven... but any liquid being made by mixing the cold outside air with the hot inside smoke will be mixed with smoke and dust and anything else that may be produced in the chimney spout. This could be dangerous for our health - until we get a T-pipe installed outside, so that any condensation, however minor, runs out of the vent instead of dripping back into the heater, we won't be cooking in it.

Our New Year's lunch consisted of a roast, cooked with tomato sauce, and some orzo pasta added towards the end of the cooking time. This very simple-sounding dish is known in Greece as γιουβέτσι (yiouvetsi). It does not look or sound like a gourmet dish, although in Greece, it's very popular. Tourists often see this dish on taverna menus; it's usually served in a clay pot. Food looks enticing when served in an exotic way, kind of like a sizzling Szechuan hotplate.

Our New Year's Day meal - roast pork cooked with orzo rice to soak up the juices, green salad with pomegranate and cheese, eggplant risotto and feta cheese (it goes with everything).
The current popularity of Greek cuisine is due in part to the freshness and high quality of the ingredients. All of these can be found/bought in other countries too, so that a dish can be recreated outside Greece. But there is something else about traditional Greek cuisine that cannot be bought, and that is the cook's know-how. Although Greek cuisine is known for its simple cooking techniques, there are some skills that require experience. It's true that anyone can cook, but you also need to know what your eaters are expecting. Here's how a home-cook in Greece would go about making sure that this dish meets the expectations of her eaters.

Yiouvetsi - serves 4-5
1 kg of pork, chopped into large chunks
1-2 cups of pulped tomato
1-2 cups of water
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper
200g orzo rice pasta

Let's start with the meat. Not all meat is the same. Depending on how it was raised, it will have different cooking times. Free-range meat raised in Crete (like this pork) is tougher than the meat of animals raised in an environment where the animals have less space to move around. So the cooking time in a recipe for yiouvetsi can only be approximate. We used free-range pork. It took a long time to slow-cook it (between 2-2 1/2 hours). Speaking of which: pork isn't the only meat that could go in here. You could use beef, lamb, goat or chicken, all commonly used meats in the Greek kitchen. A Greek home cook would use whatever is available.

It's better to keep some fat on the meat since this meat is going to be slow-cooked, otherwise your meat will come out too dry. You can remove it after it's cooked. If you remove it before, the meat will dry out too quickly as it's cooking, so that it won't reach the tender stage. This is why I prefer meat cooked in large chunks: it stays moist throughout the cooking time. It doesn't matter if the meat is boneless or not. Too many bones just will take up too much space in the baking vessel.

If you're growing your own tomatoes, you can use as much pureed tomato as you want. Yiouvetsi can be made with tinned tomatoes if fresh tomatoes are too expensive or not seasonal. We use a lot of tomato in our food throughout the year because, even in January, we still have tomatoes growing (under cover) in the garden.

If the meat is fatty, you might say that adding olive oil isn't necessary. A Cretan wouldn't agree with you. 

To cook the meat, I simply placed it on a baking dish and seasoned it well. Then I added the liquids, whose measurements are only approximate. (Only the orzo rice isn't added at this stage.) The amount of liquids depends partly on the size of the baking dish. The meat chunks should be sitting in water, half-way up. That way, they'll be soaking up the liquids and tenderising on the bottom, while they brown on the top. But as the liquids are taken up, more liquid needs to be added so that the sauce doesn't dry out. If you add all the liquids together, the meat won't be given the chance to roast; it will look oven-boiled.

To slow-cook a roast, you don't need to turn the heat up too high. Once the pan goes into the oven, for the first hour or so, it doesn't need checking. After that, I check it every 20 minutes to see if there is enough liquid in the pan. When there isn't enough water, the tomato puree will start sticking to the pan, and the meat will start burning. When adding liquids to a roast, it's better to use hot water, so that the roast isn't cooling down every time you add liquid to it. At the same time that you check (and add) the liquids, the meat chunks will need to be turned so that they are all given a chance to brown all over. In this way, the side of the meat sitting on the bottom of the pan rises to the top, and the browned meat doesn't burn. This is very important for a consistent look.

Greeks like their meat to fall off the bone. Because meat isn't raised in uniform ways, as mentioned above, and the cooking was done slowly, in moderate heat, my roast took about two hours to cook. Every time I checked on the meat, I prodded it with a knife. If the knife isn't going through with ease, neither will your teeth. At the same time as prodding and turning the meat, I would add just enough water (or tomato juice - this is costless for us, as we find ourselves at the source) just to keep the meat roasting without boiling/burning. 

When the meat was done, I pushed it to one side of the pan and covered it with a piece of foil. Then I tilted the pan and placed a thin piece of metal (the cover of the electric elements) under the place where the meat was to keep the pan tilted. I added the orzo rice and as much water as I thought would be needed for the pasta to cook. Oven-baked pasta needs about 20 minutes to cook when the oven and the liquids are both very hot. 

But the pasta also needs checking time, because it's difficult to gauge how much liquid is already in the pan. I checked the pasta every 5 minutes, adding more water, so that the orzo cooked and soaked up all the liquids, and left only the oil/fat in the baking tray. When the pasta looked ready, I switched off the oven and took away metal that was keeping the pan tilted. In this way, the juices and pasta settled again evenly throughout the dish. 


I would have taken more photos, but the meal was scoffed down very quickly. Leftovers (if there are any, and in our case, there was this little little ramekin-sized portion, which is how I ended up with one more shot of this meal) make a good meal the next day. Baking pasta with olive oil ensures that it doesn't get soggy. 

It looked like a simple meal, and it still can be, as long as the cook gives it the necessary attention.

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