Pastitsio: Heavenly Perfect Greek Style Macaroni

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Hands down, top 10 dishes of all time for family food has got to be Pastitsio. A Greek version of macaroni, it's based on the Italian original called "pasticcio" which basically means "hodgepodge." It's the Mediterranean version of a Shepherd's Pie -- throwing leftover ragu (substantial meat-based sauce) together with cooked macaroni pasta and topping it with a sauce to hold it all together, then baked. It's wonderfully flavorful and substantial, making it perfect to feed a family or as a main or side dish for a larger party on the weekend or pot luck. In fact, I distinctly remember my grandma making this dish at least once every couple of weeks and every time we participated in a pot luck -- it would be this dish and a romanian style potato salad. Yes, we loved carbs.

Pastitsio ranges in preparation and flavorings. Most actually use ground pork or beef, but on occasion use ground lamb or a combination of the three. The pasta varies -- in Greece they use a special pasta just for this dish which is longer and tubular -- think larger spaghetti noodles with a hole down the shaft. But these kinds of pastas are rather difficult to find in mainstream markets, so a simple rigatoni or even penne will do you just fine It's just using these kinds of pasta won't hold the dish together as much as the longer tubular pastas can.

Flavors range according to location. A tomato-based sauce for the ragu is required, but one can flavor it with a heavier hand of garlic, usually cinnamon/clove/mace/nutmeg or a combination of those are used, and fresh herbs like parsley and mint are usually added for both color and flavor. The sauce is a requirement: flour and butter form a roux to serve as the thickening agent for the classic bechamel sauce. Cream is added slowly to the roux, creating a thick and velvety texture. Usually salt, pepper, and a light hand of freshly grated nutmeg or mace is added to enhance the flavor. Often but not always, grated cheese is added to this bechamel to create Mornay Sauce. It's my preference, it's how I grew up with it, and it's perfection.

The meat sauce is thick and hearty, which is why you need a pasta able to stand up to the heft to be
able to pick up all the beefy goodness without falling apart under the weight of the sauce.

Making a super authentic Greek version can be a little challenging depending on where you live. Getting the right pasta is the least of your concerns; you need to worry more about the cheeses. Traditionally, kefalotyri and halloumi cheeses are used in the dish, but unless you have a great Greek community near by who imports, good luck finding these. However, you can substitute with finely grated parmesan cheese for the kefalotyri and some shredded mozzarella for the halloumi. For this recipe I used the parmesan and mozzarella with great success.

The golden crust is courtesy of the Mornay Sauce.
This dish is a little challenging in that you have 3 main prep steps: make the ragu, make the mornay, assemble the whole dish. But each step is not that difficult at all. And it's worth the work. It can be done in advance and simply baked off when you're ready to eat it. It travels very well for parties or pot lucks, and you can make as much or as little of it as you desire. This recipe below can serve 6 people generously. Enjoy!

1 Tbsp olive oil
1white onion, chopped small
1 lb ground beef
3 cloves garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 tsp ground clove
1 tsp dried oregano
1 (16 ounce) can chopped tomatoes, in sauce
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped small
1 Tbsp fresh mint, chopped small
1 lb cooked rigatoni pasta
1 stick unsalted butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
2 cups half n half
1 egg
1 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan. Add the onion and cook on medium heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the ground beef all at once, and season with salt and pepper to taste (I do around 1 larger tsp of each). Cook until the meat is browned and the moisture has evaporated (you'll notice as the beef cooks, it'll let out some juice -- cook until this has evaporated). Add the garlic and cook another minute. Add the clove, oregano, tomatoes, parsley, and mint and mix to combine. Cook covered for 30 minutes so beef can soften and flavors can develop. Once cooked, set aside.

Now make the Mornay sauce.

Classic Mornay Sauce 
You can adapt this sauce with pretty much any cheese that melts easily and use it for various
dishes including pastas, casseroles, and even sandwiches (hello croque monsieur!).
Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Once the butter has completely melted, add the flour all at once and begin whisking immediately. Cook on low heat for about 3 minutes to cook the raw flour taste out. Add the half n half slowly at first, whisking as you add, to form the sauce. Add salt to taste and cook the sauce until thickened, about 8 minutes. Once thick and creamy, remove from heat and add the parmesan cheese. Whisk to combine it in the sauce. Set aside to cool 10 minutes. Now, while whisking quickly, add the cracked egg into the sauce. By whisking you'll make sure the egg is incorporated fully and not cook and become scrambled. You'll notice this will considerably thicken the sauce.

Cover with lid and set the sauce aside until ready to assemble.
To form the pastitsio, butter the bottom and sides of a casserole dish. Spoon out a little of the Mornay sauce on the bottom -- just enough to thinly coat the bottom. Add a layer of the cooked pasta, then top with a layer of all the beef mixture on top. Next, add the rest of the pasta all on one even layer. Add the layer of mozzarella cheese on top of the pasta, then pour the entire sauce over, covering every inch of the top of the casserole to your best ability.

Pastitsio ready to be baked.

At this point you can either bake it in a 350 degree oven for 40 minutes or let it come to room temperature, cover, and wait to bake at a later time. If baking later, make sure to add on a little cooking time. You want to bake it uncovered until the top is golden brown and bubbling.

To serve, remove from oven and let stand at least 10 minutes so it can set. Then using a sharp knife, cut into the pastitsio and serve. The fresh version will most likely come apart more easily; you'll find the leftovers will keep together into a form much more and be easier to slice through. Leftovers of this taste amazing so this is a very family-friendly meal.

I love serving it with a simply salad of greens with sliced tomato, red onion, and lemon vinaigrette.

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