Last month, I attended a Les Dames d’Escoffier South Florida fund-raising event inspired by the “Aegean Secrets” Greek dinner that several of our members participated in at the James Beard House in New York. It got me thinking about my favorite Greek dish, pastitsio, the hearty casserole of layered pasta, ground lamb or beef in tomato sauce, and a bechamel sauce topping that bakes up browned and crispy.
It is often called “Greek lasagna.” This is a favorite main dish served at weddings and during the holidays in Greece and Cyprus, although versions of pastitsio can be found in Malta and Egypt.
The typical Greek version is made with tubular pasta, like penne or ziti, and is enriched with feta cheese, which provides a sharp distinctive taste. The dish owes its rich flavor to aromatic spices and herbs like cinnamon, sumac, oregano and mint.
A vegetarian pastitsio made with sautéed cubes of eggplant in place of the meat is just as delicious as the traditional kind. This dish requires some assembly work — layering the meat sauce, pasta, bechamel. But once the components are made, the rest is easy.
For the perfect texture, cook the pasta 2-3 minutes less than the package instructs so it doesn’t get mushy after baking. Pastitsio may be prepared in advance — just assemble the ingredients in your baking dish, cover tightly and refrigerate for up to two days or freeze for up to three months. If frozen, thaw before baking. For even slices, let the pastitsio cool down before cutting into squares.
Adapted from The Food 52 Cookbook, Volume 2 by Amanda Hesser & Merrill Stubbs and the Food 52 community, HarperCollins Publishing ($30.00). Recipe submitted by www.therunawayspoon for www.food52.com.
The ground meat and tomato sauce in this pasta dish point to the dark, tangy fruit of the Tempranillo grape from Spain’s Rioja region such as Marques de Teran Crianza 2012 ($16.99). It also works well with the creamy bechamel topping.
1 pound dried penne or ziti
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 pounds ground lamb
2 medium onions, chopped
½ cup dry red wine
One 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon ground sumac (optional)
1 teaspoon dried mint (optional)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Bechamel Cheese Sauce
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just al dente, about three minutes less than the package directions. Drain, transfer to a bowl, and stir in the butter to prevent sticking. Set aside.
Meanwhile, cook the lamb in a large sauté pan over medium heat, breaking it into pieces, until no longer pink, about eight minutes. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and translucent, about five minutes.
Transfer to a colander and shake well to drain the fat. Return the lamb and onions to the pan, add the wine, and cook over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. Stir in the tomato paste, and cook for a minute. Add the cinnamon, oregano, sumac, and mint, if using, and 2 cups of water. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool.
To make the cheese sauce: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until incorporated, about 30 seconds. Add the milk in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly so there are no lumps. Cook, whisking often until the mixture is thick and bubbly and coats the back of a spoon, five to seven minutes. Stir in the cayenne and Parmesan. Remove from the heat.
Heat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.
Add the pasta to the lamb mixture and stir to combine. Toss in the feta and stir to combine. Spoon the mixture into the greased baking dish. Spread the cheese sauce over the pasta mixture, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon. Bake until browned on top in spots, 25 to 30 minutes. Turn heat up to 450°F for an additional 10 minutes for a thick toasted-béchamel cap.
Remove from the oven and allow to cool for about 15 minutes before serving.