After sitting down & making a list of- what I consider to be- the most well-known Greek dishes, I thought I would take the opportunity to post my own version of some of the listed items. So I start with number 36, ‘pastitsio’, which is (as Maria at ‘Organically cooked’ says) the ‘Greek lasagna’.
We make pastitsio very often here at home, as I’m sure is the case in every Greek home. The recipe I present is very close to the Italian ‘rigatoni al forno’, or indeed to lasagna, but there are a few subtle differences, starting from the pasta shapes used.
This is my submission to this week’s Presto Pasta night, hosted at Once upon a feast. While this recipe, if you make it from scratch on a weekday night, is certainly not ‘presto’ at all, it can be transformed into a presto recipe by completing some of the steps in advance. I give guidelines on how to do this throughout the recipe.
Pastitsio, my own version, loosely adapted from Maria’s recipe in ‘Organically cooked’
For the mince sauce (basically this is a bolognese sauce), you need:
- 500 gr. (or 1 kilo, if you want this really generous) lean ground meat (pork, beef or a mixture) (Maria at Organically cooked makes the point- rightly- that fatty mince won’t reduce enough to get that dry consistency you want for pastitsio)
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, pureed or very finely chopped (optional)
- 150 ml dry red wine
- 1 large carrot, chopped finely
- 1 piece of celery, finely chopped
- a small amount of streaky bacon or pancetta (unsmoked)
- a jar of tomato passata (or you can use chopped tomatoes, perhaps 2 tins are necessary for this)
- 1 teaspoon of tomato paste
- salt, pepper, oregano to taste
- 2 bay leaves
- You can also add mushrooms (chopped) & red peppers (chopped), as Maria suggests in her own version. I haven’t yet tried these additions, but I’m sure they’ll be delicious in the pastitsio
For the pasta you need:
- 500g fat macaroni with a hole in the middle (Maria suggests Barilla No 10; you can also use rigatoni for this & it’ll be fine, but I think it’s much more authentic- I mean, close to the way it’s done in Greek kitchens- if you manage to find the correct pasta shape)
- 250g grated cheese (Maria suggests regato, gouda or edam; I’ve also successfully made this with feta cheese, cheddar and of course parmesan to sprinkle over. All have been good choices. You can be creative in your choice of cheese)
- salt and pepper to taste
For the bechamel sauce, you need:
- 500 ml milk (preferably, full fat). You need to heat this- e.g. in the microwave- before you make the bechamel
- 35 gr. flour
- 60 gr. butter
- grated nutmeg to taste
- some semolina (this is my addition; I use about 1-2 tablespoons, maybe a bit less if you’re unsure about this step. It does make the bechamel taste wonderful & somewhat sweet & fragrant. You’ll have to try it to see!)
- Start by making the meat sauce (which is basically a bolognese sauce). This step can be completed way in advance, you can even have bags of bolognese sauce stocked up in your freezer
- Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot
- Saute the onions and garlic till soft & translucent
- Add the bacon or pancetta & cook until reddish & fragrant, but not until completely crispy
- Add the mince and let it brown all over. The more time it is given to sizzle in the oil, the tastier it becomes
- When it is well-browned, pour the wine over it, and let the mince cook to draw out the flavour of the wine
- If you do decide to use the finely chopped vegetables, add them into the mixture at this point, so that they will blend in with the mince, turning them over to mix them in well
- Now add the tomatos and paste, along with just enough water to cover the mixture up to no more than 0.5cm above the mince mixture (what I do is, I slosh some water around in the empty, tomatoey passata bottle, & use that). Maria rightly notes that it is important to not have too much water or tomato sauce, because mince cooked for pastitsio (as well as moussaka and papoutsakia) must not be made into a sauce, as for spaggheti bolognese. It will be added to thick spaghetti which will become soggy if there is too much liquid in the mince. I would say that you can go a bit more liberally with the sauce if you’re using rigatoni, which can hold up more ‘saucey’ sauce!
- Add the salt, pepper, bay leaves & oregano, cover the pot, and let the mince cook for at least 40 minutes, till most of the liquid has been absorbed. I actually usually let this cook for 2 hours or so, on a very very low heat.
- Now make the pasta. When it’s ready, add the pasta to the meat sauce in a large pyrex dish (preferably an oval one) & at the end complete the last step, which is the bechamel sauce.
- Boil a large pot of water and add the pasta as the water boils.
- Cook it till al dente, and drain it well.
- Sprinkle it with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper.
- Pour the macaroni into your pyrex dish.
- Sprinkle the grated cheese into the cooked pasta, so that it melts with the heat from the pasta.
- Now pour over the cooked mince and mix it into the pasta.
- As Maria suggests, if you think there is too much mince mixture & your pyrex dish is already full, put the remaining mixture into a container and deep-freeze it. The next time you want to eat spaghetti bolognaise, all you will have to do is defrost it and boil up the spaghetti.
- Sit the pyrex dish (containing your pasta & meat sauce) on the table & prepare the bechamel. Again, this stage can be completed in advance- but not too much in advance; maybe in the morning or early afternoon. If you do this in advance, simply cover the bechamel with cling film (so that it doesn’t form a skin) & put in the fridge. Then the only thing you’ll have to do when you want to make the pastitsio is cook your pasta, reheat the meat sauce & bechamel, put everything together in a large pyrex & put the whole thing in the oven.
- Maria suggests you can make the bechamel, saving yourself time and hassle, by using the same pot that you used to cook the mince. She says it also gives the sauce a meaty taste. I’ve never tried doing this, but I certainly will next time I make pastitsio.
- Melt the butter in a heavy based pot. When it starts sizzling, add the flour
- Cook the 2 together until they become a light brownish ‘biscuit coloured’ paste.
- Remove from the heat (or you can just lower the heat very much) & start adding the heated milk, bit by bit. Go slowly at first, & thoroughly mix so that the milk becomes incorporated, but then you can go a bit more quickly.
- Around halfway through making your sauce, add the semolina & mix thoroughly. I use a small hand held whisk for this.
- Mix the sauce continuously, with a wooden spoon, till it thickens. Don’t leave the pot at this stage, as the sauce might stick to the bottom.
- When the sauce sets, pour it evenly over the mince and pasta. Sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese over the top of the sauce.
- Grate some nutmeg over the sauce.
- Put the pastitsio n the oven & cook until the top has taken a golden colour (usually about 20 mins-half hour, but make sure you keep checking it).
- Maria notes: when the pastitsio is done, leave it to cool before cutting, so that it is allowed to set to a point that makes the dish easy to cut and serve. Cutting it when it is still hot will only spoil its appearance, making it less appetising. If the pastitsio is mainly for freezing, make sure it has cooled right down before cutting it.
- Enjoy with a nice, large green salad & perhaps a cold glass of white wine.