Friday, April 16, 2010

By Popular Request: Pastitsio

Pastitsio is essentially "Greek lasagna". It is undoubtedly on the menu at every Greek restaurant in America - along with moussaka, it's one of the most popular Greek-American dishes. Unfortunately, restaurant pastitsio often disappoints. Sometimes they drench it in a red sauce, often times you can't taste the nutmeg in the sauce, or the sauce is bland, or the bechamel is like glue. The good news is: you can easily create delicious pastitsio in your own kitchen! I've adapted (slightly) this recipe from the Greektown Chicago cookbook. We've made it for friends and received rave reviews.

adapted from Greektown Chicago cookbook

Note: for this recipe, it is best to use Greek pasta that is made for pastitsio. If you live near an ethnic grocery, they likely stock it. Greek Misko No. 2 is what you want. If you can't find it, substitute penne or macaroni pasta. Your ethnic grocery will likely have Myzithra cheese as well. If not, substitute grated Parmesan - but I really urge you to get the Myzithra, as the flavor will be much more authentic!

2 lbs ground beef
2 TBSP water
2 medium size onions, chopped fine
1 lb macaroni
1 cinnamon stick
2 TBSP tomato paste, mixed with 1 cup water
2 cups grated Myzithra cheese
10 TBSP butter
5 eggs, separated
1 qt milk (best to use whole)
3/4 cup cake flour
cinnamon and nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste

Bechamel sauce: Make this first so it has ample time to cool. In a 2 quart sauce pan, bring milk to a boil. In a separate saucepan, melt butter and slowly stir in cake flour, until it forms a smooth paste. Add hot milk. Stir continuously over a low flame until it thickens. Set aside to cool.
Pasta: Boil macaroni in salted water according to package instructions (you want it quite al dente since it will bake in the oven later). Drain and let stand while you prepare the meat sauce.
Meat sauce: In a large skillet, cook onions in the 2 TBSP water until transparent. Add ground meat and cinnamon stick. Cook until meat is lightly browned. Add diluted tomato paste, and stir well. Add cinnamon, nutmeg (a healthy amount - you want to be able to taste a good amount of these!), then salt and pepper to taste. Cook slowly until the meat is cooked and most of the water has been absorbed. Remove from heat.
Combine: Place macaroni back into large pot, then add meat mixture. Blend well. In a seperate bowl, beat 5 egg whites with 1 egg yolk and add this to the mixture. Slowly mix well (use your hands for best results). Add 1/2 cup of the grated cheese, and continue to mix.
Bake: Spread the meat/macaroni mixture into a 9x13 or square baking dish. Sprinkle remaining cheese and some cinnamon over the top. Beat the remaining 4 egg yolks in a large bowl. Slowly add the cooled Bechamel sauce to the beaten yolks. If it's too thick, add a little milk while beating. Spread evenly over the meat/macaroni mixture. Bake at 375 degrees for 1 hour.

Whew! Seems like a lot of steps, but it actually doesn't take too long to get it into the oven. The meat sauce is easily prepared ahead of time - and actually we have even prepared it up to the baking point one day in advance of a dinner party and baked it right before guests arrived.

If you're tired of the same-old lasagna, give this a try to mix things up a little. It has a much different flavor profile than Italian lasagna. The cinnamon and nutmeg in the savory sauce gives it a wonderful depth of flavor, and the creamy Bechamel on top gives it a rich, stick-to-your-ribs kind of goodness. Enjoy!

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