Photo: Mina Stone

Cooking with Artists: Jannis Varelas

The artist shares a lamb recipe from a northern region of Greece, in MoMA PS1’s ongoing series with chef Mina Stone.
Mina Stone Sep 16, 2020

“Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” —Nikos Kazantzakis

Initially, it might have been self-serving of me to interview Jannis Varelas, a prolific Greek painter, sculptor, and video artist. I was desperately homesick for the Greek part of me. (I have been forever trapped between two worlds, both of which I call home.) I miss the cooing of the morning doves, the smell of strong Greek coffee, the quiet, gossiping voices of women in the evening…. I miss all the things that give me comfort and I wanted to touch down in the place I love, Greece, if only for a moment, if only through an interview, to remind myself of this sacred cornerstone of my identity.

I could hear Athens through the walls of Jannis’s studio—that specific echo the city has when sound bounces off the cement, stone, and marble. I dove headfirst into Jannis’s world for refuge and connection.

“From quite early on, my work was based on the human condition. Identity—it’s about shape, the shape of the body, the shape of the fantasy and of self-projection. All these things that concern us and help us understand ourselves and others. My last works were dealing with the concept of the anima, the feminine side within our self and how that develops our identity.”

Anima, the feminine side within ourselves, or our true inner self.

I close my eyes and I’m with my mother and my grandmother, sitting on the porch on the island of Aegina, shelling beans. “Your great-grandmother made the worst beans ever,” my grandmother laughs, and I hear the echoes of the generations of women that have come before me. They are the women who passed onto me their culture, heritage, and knowledge to make me who I am, and I feel their energy pulse through me, continuing into the future.

“In Greece, food has a lot to do with its social impact. You sit at the table for six hours and all the issues start coming up...like politics and family.... It’s very much connected to the ritual structure of getting to know the other person better. You have to listen to the problems or the issues that they are concerned with—and then you have to open yourself up in the same way.”

The dinner table is a form of therapy for Greek families and friends. Things can be said in anger, argued about passionately, but when everyone gets up to leave, it is all left at the table. The agora, the symposiums of ancient Greece, are still alive and well in modern times.

Jannis mentions that there is a certain “tempo” to making his artwork, the same tempo he taps into when he is cooking. “To have a finished painting, it goes through many stages of preparation, all of them important to the outcome. That’s a certain type of time you spend with yourself and with others to create this kind of situation. It’s the same with cooking. Go get the materials, decide what you want to do, prepare the materials, be organized for what is going to come next...and then, after a certain amount of time has passed, you either have an image or something to eat.”

After I spoke with Jannis, I thought about how everything we do is reflected in everything else that we do. Oftentimes our cooking represents our heritage and it can also represent a manifestation of how we approach an entirely different practice. The beauty in what I hear time and time again is the simple thread of connection: Cooking is community building, a place to process, a place to share information and an expression of one’s identity and the generations behind them.

It is serendipitous that this interview ends up coinciding with the reopening of Mina’s Cafe this weekend at MoMA PS1. I hope to see everyone and share this important milestone as we continue on this crazy ride together. We will have window service with daily specials, cocktails, and natural Greek wine—served in the PS1 courtyard on our new picnic tables with umbrellas.

Slow roast leg of lamb with honey, vinegar, olive oil, and figs

“My mom’s family comes from the north part of Greece—the region is called Epirus. Up there, they work a lot with meat like lamb or goats, and I remember there’s a specific dish that I learned from my mom, but also from my grandma and my aunts that make the same dish.”

When Jannis described this dish to me I could barely contain my excitement. It sounded delicious, but also ancient...honey, vinegar, olive oil, and figs? This was too good to be true.

This slow-roasted lamb is delectable, the Greek answer to sweet and sour flavor with the meat falling off the bone, studded with garlic and golden potatoes. I was grateful to share in his lineage of women, passing on this recipe to the next generation.

Serves 4–6

3–4 pounds bone-in leg of lamb (substitute the shoulder or lamb shanks, pictured here)
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup honey, preferably Greek
4 tablespoons of good quality red wine vinegar
6 garlic cloves, peeled
8 dried figs, cut in half
6–8 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled
2 cups (500 ml) chicken broth
2 cups water
Kosher salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and have a large baking dish ready.

Mix the kosher salt and pepper in a small bowl.

Cut three of the six garlic cloves in small chunks. (Keep the remaining three garlic cloves for later.)

Using a sharp knife, cut approximately five slits, half an inch deep and one inch wide, on each side of the leg of lamb. Fill them with the salt and pepper mixture, and stuff with a small piece or two of the cut garlic.

For the glaze, mix the olive oil, vinegar, and honey in a bowl. Add a generous pinch of salt and pepper and set aside.

Cut potatoes in half if they are small or in quarters if they are big. The wedges should be generous in size so they don’t fall apart while cooking. Place the potatoes in the baking pan. Scatter the figs equally throughout the potatoes.

Pour in the broth and water and scatter the remaining three garlic cloves over the potatoes and liquid. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

Dip the leg or shanks of lamb into the glaze and pour the leftover glaze over the potatoes. Sprinkle lamb and potatoes with salt and pepper mixture. (It seems like a lot of salt and pepper, but the sweet and sour cancel out the “saltiness” so it needs more than you’d think. If you are not using kosher salt, you will need less salt.)

Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and roast for one-and-a-half hours. Then remove the foil and roast for another two hours, until the lamb is a deep golden brown and yields easily to a fork.