It's all Greek to me

I’ve loved to cook, bake and eat Greek food for years. Spanakopita is probably my all-time favorite thing to make and I’m never not in the mood to eat stuffed grape leaves (with meat or not). Greek yogurt with honey might as well be Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and my mouth waters just thinking about that vertical spit of hot lamb used to make gyros.

Eggplant moussaka, baklava, olives, feta, lentils, stuffed zucchini, chicken soup with lemon, fried meatballs with mint and oregano (with tzatziki, the strained yogurt-cucumber-herb sauce on the side). The list goes on. Sometimes I fantasize about going to a culinary school that specializes in Greek food.

I’m no expert. I hardly know any of the proper names for most of their best dishes (what’s the one where you marinate lamb in lemon and garlic and slow-cook it?) but that doesn’t keep me from making them or scarfing them down at any chance. I was pleased, therefore, to come across a Greek recipe I didn’t know about called pastitsio. It’s a baked pasta dish with a distinctly Greek flavor based on the inclusion of a sweet spice like nutmeg, allspice, or cinnamon. It’s not hard to see why this is considered a Greek comfort food.

Apparently the word pastitsio comes from the Italian word pasticcio meaning mess or hodgepodge. Although there are many variations on this pastitsio recipe, This is the version that I made and got rave reviews by my meat and dairy-eating private chef clients. It’s not anywhere near a low-fat dish, but I often have most of the ingredients in my pantry.

Meat filling:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1# tubular pasta like penne or ziti, cooked al dente
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1# of ground (not lean) pork, lamb, or beef or a combination
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 cups of tomato puree
  • 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 2 beaten egg whites (save yolks for bechamel sauce)
  • 1/4 cup butter

Bechamel sauce:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 cups warm milk
  • 4 egg yolks, beaten
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add meat and cook, stirring often until it’s browned. Keep the fat in the pan. Add the onion and saute till translucent. Add the wine, spices, salt and pepper, and the tomato puree. Cook over medium low heat for 10 minutes, stirring often. Set aside. Melt 1/4 cup butter in a large pot and add the pasta, egg whites, and 1/2 cup of the cheese and toss well.

Spread 1/2 the pasta onto the bottom of a 11 x 13 inch pan. Add the meat and then the rest of the pasta and press down to flatten. Preheat the oven to 350 and prepare the bechamel.

Melt 1/2 cup butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and stir continuously until the flour is golden and smells nutty. Add the warmed milk a little bit at a time, whisking to incorporate before adding more. Turn the heat to low and whisk the sauce as it thickens. Don’t let it boil. It should be thicker than gravy but thin enough to pour.

Pour the white sauce over the noodles, top with remaining 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, and bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown. Garnish with chopped parsley.

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