My Greek DNA stretches across Greece from the ancient city of Olympia (Yiayia Helen Patsuris Metos) to the high mountain village of Stromi in the Roumeli region (Papou Chris Metos), through Megara in Attiki (Papou Pete Saltas) and across the sea to Gavalahori, Crete (Yiayia Stella Nepolis Saltas). Greek blood runs hot, but it’s my Cretan blood line (originally Nebavlakis but shortened to Nepolis) that proudly boils hottest of all. This Cretan recipe is all about vrasto (vra-STO), meaning boiled.
I have been dancing to traditional Cretan music since the second grade, joining hands with thousands of fellow Utah Cretans—one of the oldest and largest Cretan communities in the USA—all dedicated to preserving and celebrating Crete’s rich heritage. From long tradition, Cretan weddings feature ARNI VRASTO, typically served late into the wedding party night—hours after the wedding reception meal was served and with plenty of drinks and dancing in between. We Utah Cretans also serve this time honored meal at our horoesperithas (dance parties) twice a year.
Dancing builds appetites. After working up a sweat dancing maleviziotis, syrtos, and sousta, the crowd takes a break around midnight to eat arni vrasto and pilafi. Arni (Are-NEE) means lamb, but we simply call it vrasto. Everyone settles in as the big feast arrives, over flowing serving plates of vrasto landing on the tables. Boiled lamb and lemon rice (with even more lemon added at the table) may not sound exotic but you know, some of the best things in life are not.
I’ve always depended on special occasions to get my fill of vrasto. But that’s no longer enough for me. I decided to master the dish myself. Over a recent FaceTime session, I attempted the recipe with my good friend and fellow foodie, Matthaios Daoutis. He’s a Chicago Cretan who will attempt to cook just about anything. It turns out, making vrasto is even more straightforward than I imagined. Just season the lamb with salt and pepper, boil the meat until tender, reserve the broth to make the pilafi, and of course add lots of lemon. Boiled lamb. Simple.
If you know any Cretans, I highly suggest asking them to take you to a local horoesperitha to get a full Cretan experience. Take your dancing shoes and do not leave before the arni vrasto and pilafi arrive.
- For the lamb:
- 4 pounds lamb shoulders, cut into thick pieces*
- 2 tablespoons pepper, plus more to taste
- 2 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
- Many, many lemons, cut into quarters
- ¼ cup butter
- 2 cups long grain white rice
- 6 cups reserved meat liquid from pot
- ½ cup lemon juice
- Wash the lamb pieces and fully season with salt and pepper.
- Fill a large pot with enough water to cover the meat. Add the lamb and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 1 ½ to 2 hours until the meat is tender. Add more salt and pepper to the water if necessary.
- While the meat is cooking, fatty particles will rise to the surface. Use a slotted spoon and remove during the cooking process.
- Once the lamb is nearly done, drain the water of impurities and set the lamb aside. Reserve the liquid to use as the juice for pilafi.
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, add the rice and stir together for 2-3 minutes. Add lemon juice and stir, followed by the lamb broth. Let simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the rice is soft. There should be some liquid covering the rice. If not, add a little more broth or water. Remove from heat, cover the pot and let stand for 5 minutes so the rice can absorb the remaining liquid to make a creamy pilafi.
- Place the lamb vrasto and pilafi together on a serving platter.
- Serve with as many halved lemons as you can find.