Pastitsio is Greek comfort food–a cheesy, meaty pasta casserole redolent of cinnamon and oregano. I have lightened it a bit by using cauliflower and mushrooms (or zucchini!) in place of some of the pasta! The entire family adores this one!
What do you do in the middle of the night when you cannot sleep? I watch Food TV–but only certain cooks. Some are too loud or upbeat, and some I cannot understand (think British cooks) without turning the TV up too loud for John. But Ina Garten is an insomniac’s dream come true.
Now understand me, she is not boring and I don’t mean to imply that. I almost always finish the episode before sleeping, but she is just calm and soothing–and interesting enough to distract me from my insomnia. If you are prone to insomnia, especially the kind born of worrying about dumb stuff, then you know what I mean. It also helps that for the most part I am interested in what she does, but I frequently do not want to cook it myself, just because we clearly have very different tastes (she focuses on Mediterranean and especially French cooking, for those who have never seen The Barefoot Contessa).
The biggest exception to the previous comment is when she makes Greek food (well that and when she bakes). The other night (early morning) I watched her make pastitsio, and I knew instantly that I was making it ASAP. Who cares that it was almost 80 F outside, who cares that the meal screamed fall/winter comfort food and we’re well into spring, I wanted some of that comfort food casserole.
Now as it turns out the day I made the Pastitsio, it hit almost 90 F here, and I don’t really recommend that in retrospect. But I don’t regret making it either because it was “DELICIOSO!!!!!!” as Alex exclaimed.
A note about some of my changes: lamb is obviously more traditional, and perhaps I’ve made it not pastitsio by not using it, but I just bought a quarter of a cow, and I am determined to only use meat already in my freezer. So I used some ground turkey to lighten the beef. I also had more of that broccoflower, and I decided to add it and zucchini, with less pasta, to make it more of a complete meal (I did also serve it with a salad). [Update October 2015: I have also made Pastitsio with all beef, mushrooms instead of zucchini, and cauliflower instead of broccoflower. All worked beautifully.]
- Tomato Meat Sauce:
- 3 T good (but not amazing) extra virgin olive oil, preferably Greek
- 3 medium onions, chopped
- 1 medium zucchini, diced or 8 oz sliced crimini mushrooms
- 2 lbs ground meat of choice (I prefer beef but lamb is more traditional)
- ¾ cup dry red wine
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 t cinnamon (Not Vietnamese cinnamon, choose a softer one or even use Ceylon cinnamon)
- 2 t dried oregano
- 2 t fresh thyme leaves (or scant t dried)
- ¼ t coarse aleppo pepper
- 1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes in puree (if necessary sub diced tomatoes)
- Kosher salt
- 1 t freshly ground black pepper
- The Béchamel:
- 1½ cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 4 T (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
- ¼ cup AP flour
- ¼ t freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 oz freshly shredded Provolone or Kasseri cheese
- 2 oz hard grating cheese of choice, shredded (I like Pecorino)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- ⅔ cup Greek yogurt (2% or whole fat)
- Assembling the casserole:
- 8 oz dried pasta of choice, she uses shells, I used penne, cooked al dente
- 1 medium head of cauliflower or broccoflower, cut into small florets and blanched
- Chopped Italian parsley, optional, for sprinkling on individual servings
- Begin with the meat sauce: heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the onion with a pinch of salt and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms (if using) with another pinch of salt and cook for another 5 minutes. Add the ground meat with another pinch of salt, and sauté over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until it's no longer pink, crumbling it with the back of wooden spoon.
- Drain off any excess liquid, and add the zucchini (if using) and the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, and Aleppo pepper, and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Let the wine evaporate, then add the tomatoes, another pinch (or more) of salt to taste, and 1 teaspoon pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes. Set aside.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Lightly grease a deep, large casserole dish (preferably at least 9X13 and 3 inches deep). Set aside.
- Next make the béchamel: Mix the milk and cream. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2 minutes. Slowly drizzle the milk and cream mixture into the butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until smooth and thick.
- Mix together the 2 cheeses.
- Add the nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir in ¾ cup of the mixed cheese, ½ cup of the tomato and meat sauce, and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
- Whisk together the eggs and yogurt. Stir that into the white sauce and set aside.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. Don't over-cook because the pasta will later be baked. Drain and set aside. Do the same for the cauliflower. (I use the same pot of boiling water for both by using a pot with a pasta insert.)
- Mix the pasta and cauliflower into the meat and tomato sauce, and then pour the mixture into the prepared casserole dish. Spread the bechamel evenly to cover the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot. As with all casseroles, Pastitsio will firm up considerably the next day and be soft and a little runny the first day.
- Sprinkle individual servings with Italian parsley if desired.
For the collage fans: