I’ve been inspired to another food blog by another Twitter friend – Sia of @GreekWeddings, who has a lovely website whether you’re getting married or not. Sia is running a Greek Cooking Challenge throughout 2014 and February’s dish is pasticcio.
Pasticcio is both an everyday dish, and food for celebrations. It’s easy to make in large quantities, and will comfortably feed a crowd without breaking the bank if you want it to. Not unlike Italian lasagne, it’s a winning combination of pasta, meat sauce and bechamel, so it’s easy to have a go if you’ve never tried it before, or if you’d like to recapture memories of last summer’s dinner at that waterside taverna.
There are two tricky things about pasticcio. The first is how to spell it in English, and you’ll see all kinds of variations – pastitsio, pastichio, and my preferred Italian version – but however you spell it, it’s a rich and satisfying dish. The trickier thing is getting hold of the ‘correct’ pasta. If you were in Greece, you’d pop into your neighbourhood grocer’s and there’d be packets and packets of the right stuff on the shelves, but here in the UK I’ve struggled for years to find the long, hollow pasta you ‘should’ use. Then, lo and behold, in a wonderful moment of serendipity, as I was thinking about this blog and how it was about time we had pasticcio for dinner at our house, I wandered into a continental grocer’s in Nottingham, and there it was!
If you can’t get mezzani, it really doesn’t matter. Macaroni is an excellent subsitute, as are pasta spirals or shells or whatever else you have in the cupboard that will hold plenty of luscious sauce.
Remember this is Greek cooking so be generous and bold with your seasonings and quantities (I always add a bit more of everything than the recipe says, except if I’m baking when careful measuring is important). And taste as you go, especially with your meat sauce. You’re looking for that distinctive fragrant Greekness to come through. If your component parts are right, your assembled dish will be delicious.
If you have a go, why not sign up to Sia’s Greek Cooking Challenge and post a photo of your finished dish? And definitely Tweet a pic to me @AnneZouroudi.
Pasticcio (Serves about 4)(it’s so hard to judge, isn’t it? But people will probably want seconds)
For the Meat Sauce:
A little good olive oil, the greener the better (more colour equals more flavour)
500g beef mince
1 largish onion, chopped finely
2-3 cloves garlic (you can use less, or none, but we’re cooking Greek here)
Salt and pepper
Ground cinnamon, cloves and cumin
Oregano and bay leaves
1 carton of passata
About 500ml milk
1 egg (plus the two yolks from above)
salt and pepper
1 pack dried pasta – mezzani, macaroni, spirals or penne
To make the Meat Sauce:
Heat the oil in a large pan over moderate heat and cook the onion until just turning colour. A little browning is fine. Towards the end of cooking add the crushed or chopped garlic, giving it a couple of minutes before you add the meat. Break up the meat with a spoon as it browns. When all the meat has turned colour, add the spices – a good teaspoon of cinammon, half a teaspoon of cloves and cumin. The spices should be coming through quite strongly; if you can’t smell them, add a little more. Season well with salt and pepper, stir in the passata and two tablespoons of water (or red wine if you have it to hand), sprinkle on a little oregano, drop in two bay-leaves and let the sauce simmer over low heat until it’s thickened and the oil has separated to the top, ten to twenty minutes, more rather than less. Turn off the heat and allow to cool to no hotter than blood heat. When the sauce is cool, remove the bay-leaves and stir in the egg being sure to mix it right through. Warning: if the sauce is too hot you will have omelet in your meat sauce: not fatal but not attractive either.
Whilst your meat sauce is cooking and cooling, boil the pasta until al dente, drain, drizzle with a little olive oil and mix to coat and prevent sticking. You might add a touch of salt if you like. Another warning: if you’re using mezzani for the first time, you’ll find it pretty lively and unwieldy; it’s pasta with a mind of its own.
To make the Bechamel:
Melt the butter over a medium/high heat – you want it hot but take care not to brown it. When it’s melted stir in the flour a soup-spoon at a time, blending it and letting it bubble, adding more until all the butter’s absorbed. This is a blond roux. Let it cook a minute or two, then take the pan off the heat and add a splash of milk, stirring quickly to incorporate it. When your butter/flour mix is smooth, add more milk a splash at a time, stirring after each addition until you have a sauce the consistency of thick cream. Don’t make the bechamel too thin. Season well and allow to cool to blood heat, then beat in the egg.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine the meat sauce with the pasta. Choose a dish big enough to hold everything comfortably (a lasagne dish for example), tip in your pasta/meat mix and level the top (if you’re using mezzani, this may be a challenge so don’t worry about any bits sticking up). Pour over your bechamel, grate on a light sprinkling of nutmeg (ground nutmeg is fine but freshly grated is more aromatic) and scatter generously with cheese.
Bake until golden brown and fabulous, 30-40 minutes. Cool a little before cutting into rectangles and serving.
Imagine yourself here as you eat and it will taste even better…
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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