I’ve waited all summer for the first cool day to arrive. Not that I don’t love every minute of summer, it’s just that I have been dying to try this gorgeous dish ever since I saw it in House Beautiful. With yet another dire weather prediction for high winds and heavy rains, it seemed the perfect night to hunker down with this wonderful comfort food. And I always look forward to anything from Ina, whose new cookbook “How Easy is That?” is due out October 26th. You can order it right here!
Pastitsio, Ina informed us, is like a Greek version of lasagna. Ground beef is combined with ground lamb and then flavored with tomatoes, then mixed with pasta. And, as in a truly great lasagna, the whole thing is covered with a delicious Bechamel sauce with a twist: Greek yogurt is added to the sauce at the last minute. This gives the topping a completely different taste…it tastes, well, Greek!
My friend Keith and I had a good old laugh recently about home chefs’ recipe reviews. When they add their comments to various sites like epicurious.com or foodnetwork.com, they inevitably talk about how they didn’t really follow the recipe at all – substituting ingredients left, right and center. Of course any good cook not only can but often should work with whatever they have on hand. It’s just that Keith and I think it’s a little ridiculous to criticize a recipe when you’ve altered it—in some cases—beyond all recognition. I did make some changes here but in the end this is pure Ina—so full of flavor, so relatively easy and so pleasing that, once again, you just have to bow down and thank her for this.
As to my changes, I’m making a concerted effort to use up the vast pantry that has accumulated in both our kitchens. Slavishly following recipes has led to perhaps a dozen half-used boxes of pasta. So I couldn’t bring myself to use the small shell pasta Ina called for. Instead I used oricchiette, which is a perfectly fine substitute. Then in lieu of the crushed tomatoes in puree, I used a jar that we’d canned ourselves. Finally, I halved the recipe. In our house, the problem is that in trying to keep this blog chock full of new ideas, leftovers get short shrift. So I try to limit the quantities of them that clog the refrigerator if I don’t. I wasn’t very successful here: The Pastitsio is absolutely delicious but it also falls into the ‘too rich to eat too much’ category. But four people would be delirious over this. One last note: Ina called for either Parmigiano or a Greek cheese called “Kasseri”. I found it at Fairway. I’d highly recommend trying to do so yourself. I think it add to the whole “Greekness” of the dish and takes it further away from any conventional Italian baked pasta dish. Here’s the recipe, as Ina wrote it. It is for 8 portions. I halved it easily. ( I wish I could have quartered it.)
Recipe for Pastitsio courtesy of Ina Garten
For the Tomato Meat Sauce:
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion (1 large)
1 pound lean ground beef
1 pound lean ground lamb
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 large cloves)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes in puree
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Bechamel:
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan or Kasseri cheese
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup Greek-style yogurt, such as Fage Total
3/4 pound small shells
For the sauce, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add the beef and lamb, and saute 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, add the wine, and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
For the bechamel, heat the milk and cream together in a smallsaucepan over medium-low heat until simmering. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2 minutes. Pour the warm milk andcream 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. Add the nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in 3/4 cup ofParmesan cheese, 1/2 cup of the tomato and meat sauce, and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the eggs and yogurt 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. Drainand set aside.
Add the pasta to the meat and tomato sauce, and pour the mixture into a baking dish. Spread the bechamel evenly to cover the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot.