Saturday, January 30, 2010

Greece - Pastitsio

I haven’t been to Greece since I was a little girl. I was only six or seven so I don’t remember much. But I do remember that my parents rented a van and we drove to a rented beach house. On the way I saw Mount Olympus, the home of the gods, my mother pointed out. She then told me the Greek stories of Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite.

I had moussakka for the first time on that trip. The savory combination of cinnamon, lamb, eggplant and cheese were irresistible on my young palate and stuck to the roof of my mouth. After that, every birthday, while growing up, my mom made me a special moussakka dinner. Even though she was not one who spent a lot of time in the kitchen, for me, she’d spend much of the day preparing the meal.

I already cooked moussakka for Cyprus, if you recall. So, for our Greek meal I cooked Pastitsio, a baked meat and pasta casserole. It is one of Greece’s most popular dishes. Most of the recipes I tackle for this project are quick. This one is not, but you’re not going to find many who don’t like this dish.

Pastitsio: Baked Meat and Pasta Casserole

1 1/2 lbs tubular pasta (ziti, penne)
1 cup olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/4 cup chopped onions
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
2 1/2 cups peeled, chopped plum tomatoes
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
6 whole cloves
Sea salt
20 or more ground peppercorns to taste
1 1/4 cup grated Kefalotyri cheese (or Pecorino)
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
Bechamel sauce with cheese

Sautee the onions in 2 TBSP olive oil in a large frying pan. When the onions are translucent, add meat and continue to stir until lightly brown. Add tomatoes, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, salt and pepper. Stir well to combine. Reduce heat and simmer until liquid has been absorbed, about 30 to 35 minutes. Meat should be dry without sticking to the pan. Set meat mixture aside, uncovered and allow to cool.

In the meantime (while meat is simmering), preheat oven 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking dish. Prepare the pasta. Cook until slightly underdone, drain and toss with a couple of TBSP of olive oil to prevent sticking and set aside.

Make béchamel sauce with cheese.
2 cans evaporated milk (I used 2 cups of regular milk)
8 TBSP cornstarch
4 cups water
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino cheese
1 TBSP butter
1 tsp salt
Pinch of nutmeg

In a sauce pan, bring water to a boil. Then dissolve the cornstarch in one can evaporated milk, and add to the water, stirring briskly. Lower the heat to medium and add the second can of milk, the salt and butter. Continue to whisk until sauce thickens. Add the beaten eggs and nutmeg, whisking quickly (so the eggs don’t cook) until well blended. Remove from the heat, stir in the cheese, mix well and set aside until ready to use.

Spread the breadcrumbs evenly on the bottom of the baking dish. Use half the pasta for the first layer and sprinkle with a 1/2 cup of grated cheese. Remove cloves from the sauce, add the meat sauce evenly over the pasta and sprinkle with 1/2 cup grated cheese. Add the remaining pasta on top. Carefully pour béchamel sauce over the top and use a spatula to spread evenly.

Bake for 30 minutes, then sprinkle the remaining cheese on top and continue to bake for another 15 to 30 minutes until the sauce rises and turns golden brown. Take out of the oven and cool before serving. Serves 6 to 8 people.

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