I was very excited this week to receive another stamp on my culinary passport by making a Greek dish called Pastitsio. Greek food and I seem to have a love/hate relationship. It is not Greek food's fault, it's mine. First, there was the incident sixteen years ago where I happened to get the flu a few hours after eating Greek food. I'm sure it was totally coincidental, but it was so strongly linked in my mind for so long, that I have only been able to stomach the THOUGHT of Greek food for the past six years or so. Then, there was moussaka incident...
Six years ago, when I was a relatively new cook and a brand-new stay-at-home mom (a few weeks before my first was born), I decided to be a very domestic wife and make my husband moussaka. The recipe I had called for ground lamb and, being new to the area and a new cook, I didn't know if ground lamb was even something that one could purchase. I bought 3 lbs. of lamb chops from my local supermarket and proceeded for the next two hours to feed them through an ancient, hand cranked, meat grinder that had once belonged to my husband's grandmother. The moussaka was fabulous, but it took me about 5 hours to make from start to finish, another bad experience associated with Greek food.
Imagine my delight (and what can only be described as frustration?) last week, when I noticed that my local butcher carries ground lamb in his freezer section! I had to pick up a few pounds as a tribute to my past-self grinding that meat by hand so many years ago. Kalofagas had made a delicious looking Pastitsio a few weeks ago, and I had to try my hand at it, especially since he is judging, Tony Tahhan's Taste of the Mediterranean: Greek Pastitsio event. Now Peter, I know you may be reading this and shaking your head at my interpretation of this recipe, but you have converted me to the beauty of Greek cuisine single-handedly, and for that, I thank you.
All of the recipes for Pastitsio I was finding used ground beef, but I really wanted to incorporate the ground lamb that I found. What I ended up creating was elegant and delicious and yet so homey and filling. I served it with a crisp white wine. I did indeed enjoy my evening in Greece.
Pastitsio by Joie de vivre
1 quart of 1% milk, divided
1/2 lb. butter (2 sticks), cut into 8 pieces each
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 Tbls. tapioca starch (may be called tapioca flour, cornstarch may be substituted)
1/4 c. olive oil
2 lbs. ground lamb
1 onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbls. tomato paste
3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
2 Bay leaves
1 tsp. cinnamon
3/4 tsp. rosemary
1 Tbls. fresh basil, minced
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. oregano
16 oz. penne rigate noodles
1 lb. grated Romano cheese
1 Tbls. chopped parsely, to finish
1. Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Cook pasta until al dente, drain and set aside.
3. Meanwhile, heat 3 1/2 cups milk and the butter over medium heat until almost boiling. Mix together the other 1/2 cup milk with the flour and tapioca starch and slowly add to the hot milk mixture. Whisk constantly until mixture resembles thickened pudding. It should take about 5 minutes. Set this mixture aside to cool while you make the meat sauce.
4. Over medium-high heat, heat a separate large pot. Add the olive oil and saute the onions until they are starting to soften. Add the garlic and saute for 30 seconds, until fragrant. Add the ground lamb and cook, breaking up large chunks with a spoon, until browned. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon, rosemary, basil, nutmeg, coriander, cloves, and oregano to the pan along with the tomatoes and tomato paste. Simmer for a few minutes until the meat is cooked through.
5. Drain the meat and remove the bay leaves. Set the meat mixture aside.
6. By now, your milk mixture will be slightly cooled. In a large bowl, crack all 10 eggs and whisk to break up the yolks. Take a ladle-full of the hot milk mixture and SLOWLY pour into the eggs WHILE whisking the eggs vigorously. Repeat with a second and third ladle-full, whisking the eggs continuously as you SLOWLY pour in the hot milk. Now, take the egg mixture and slowly pour the whole thing into the rest of the hot milk mixture. This is your bechamel sauce.
7. You are now ready to start assembling your Pastitsio!
8. Butter a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish and place on top of a cookie pan. Layer 1/2 of the cooked pasta on the bottom of the dish. Cover this with 1/2 of the meat mixture. Next, sprinkle 1/3 of the shredded Romano cheese on top. Repeat these steps one more time by layering the rest of the noodles, the rest of the meat mixture and another 1/3 of the grated cheese.
9. Pour 3/4 of the bechamel sauce on top of your Pastitsio. Sprinkle with 1/2 of the remaining cheese.
10. Bake the Pastitsio for 5 minutes and remove from the oven. Lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Add the remaining bechamel sauce and the rest of the grated cheese to the top of the Pastitsio. Place the Pastitsio in the oven and bake for an additional 45 minutes.
11. Let the Pastitsio cool for about 5-10 minutes before slicing into squares. Sprinkle chopped parsley over each serving.