Manestra, is a traditional Greek dish very similar to risotto. Minus the butter, plus olive oil. And instead of rice, we use orzo pasta. This orzo risotto is cooked in a lightly spiced tomato sauce that’s made both with fresh tomatoes and tomato paste.
Manestra in Greek refers to the orzo pasta itself that is cooked with tomato sauce. Another way to make Manestra, is with the addition of ground meat to it. This was a budget-friendly way to cook for the family back in the ’50s.
Today, in Greece we either make Manestra without the meat (like in this recipe) or if we are to use meat, we make Giouvetsi instead. Which is again an orzo and tomato dish with either lamb, chicken, or even pork or beef that’s baked in the oven instead of the stovetop.
So since Manestra is a pasta-risotto-style-dish, it can be served either as a main meal (a really quick dinner) along with some crumbled feta on top. Or as a side dish to meat dishes.
How To Make Manestra
To make Manestra you need some extra virgin olive oil, red onion, garlic, red wine, tomato paste, fresh super-ripe tomatoes, a few pieces of allspice, and dried bay leaves. And of course orzo pasta. Orzo comes in three sizes, small, medium, and large. Although medium and large orzo is used mostly. For this recipe, medium-sized orzo is used.
And the process is the same as that of a risotto. First, caramelize the onion (+ the garlic clove), then add the orzo. Add the wine, and in this recipe the tomato paste and fresh grated tomatoes as well. Then pour in hot water, (in a risotto it’s usually chicken broth) little by little until the orzo is cooked to al dente. If you want to use broth to make the Manestra, then a vegetable stock or beef stock will suit it better.
A Few Things To Know When Cooking Orzo
Just like any pasta, orzo will get sticky due to the starch it releases when cooked. This starch is what thickens the sauce. So keep an eye on it, and stir a lot, to avoid it from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Orzo absorbs a lot of liquid. Even when you remove it from heat. The more it sits the more it absorbs. This means that this dish is best served when it’s cooked. Meaning that if you make this at lunch and try to serve it for dinner, the orzo will have doubled in size by then and there won’t be any sauce left. But that’s the only con in orzo. Its pros are its delicious and filling pasta flavor, and how quickly it cooks into a delicious and gorgeously thickened pasta dish like this one!
Manestra – Greek Orzo With Tomato Sauce
- 7 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium-sized red onion finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove chopped
- 250 grams/ 8.8 oz orzo medium-sized
- 1,5 tablespoon tomato paste
- 70 ml red wine
- 3 medium-sized tomatoes very ripe
- ⅔ teaspoon sugar
- 6 pieces of allspice
- 2 dried bay leaves
- OPTIONAL: crumbled feta cheese to serve with
- 1 liter hot water (or vegetable or beef stock)
- Using a hand grater, grate the tomatoes on a medium scale and discard their skins.
- Heat the olive oil in a large cooking pot over medium-high heat.
- Add the onion and cook for a minute stirring with a wooden spoon. Then add the garlic and cook until the onion and garlic get caramelized and softened.
- Reduce heat to medium. Stir in the orzo and cook for a minute, add the tomato paste and keep stirring for 2 minutes for the paste to cook as well.
- Pour in the wine and cook until it evaporates completely (stops smelling of alcohol). Add the grated tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes more stirring occasionally.
- Season with salt and pepper. Add the bay leaves, sugar, and allspice.
- Pour in the hot water (or stock) little by little stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. The orzo will absorb it quickly. It takes about 15 minutes for the orzo to cook this way and become al dente. Not too soft when you bite it.
- So once you have stirred in all the water and the orzo has cooked to al dente, take the pot off the heat and let stand for a few minutes. The more orzo sits the more it absorbs the sauce so don't worry if the sauce doesn't look as thick. It will get there even if it's removed from the heat.
- Serve orzo with plenty of freshly ground pepper on top and crumbled feta cheese as well if you like.
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