Pastitsio – Greek Love, One Layer At A Time
Next month, I will be teaching an intimate group of people a class on a winter warmer dish and transporting them to a place far away.The classes are always full of surprises for both me and my students. Each class, we visit a different country and simply lose ourselves for a couple of hours. Some students walk in and are super charged, others bring some of their inhibitions with them but however they show up, this is no right or wrong way. Once we have loosened up over a few wines and a canape indicative of the country we are going to, it is time to roll up the sleeves and make way for our inner artist.
Next month, we are going to Greece. Whilst I do make some Greek dishes at home, such as, roasted chicken with lemon potatoes and Moussaka, I felt like changing it up so that I could also learn something new before I pass the baton to someone else. Like most good things that transpire over a conversation and a cup of coffee, so did a strong menu for my class. I grabbed a moment with my friend Vera Giannaris who is known for her warmth and hardcore Greek cooking.
Vera talked to me about various dishes and what you would serve for a luncheon, an intimate gathering, as well as the Greek perspective of what spices pair well together and what don’t (these are the things the cookbooks don’t tell you). Her recipes were colorful or rather a collage of stories to include parents, grandparents, friends and children all glued together with a little chaos and a lot of fun. Of course a meal that lacked vibrancy would never make the cut on any given day in a Greek home, and Veras dishes were anything but lackluster. Oven roasted red peppers and tomatoes stuffed with rice, raisins and spices, pies with sautéed leeks and spinach and Pastitsio. Her description of Pastitsio and everything it stood for definitely made this dish a strong contender for my class. It is the perfect winter warmer with it’s slow braised ground lamb sandwiched between tightly packed noodles and the fluffiest béchamel (there is a secret behind the fluffiness).
I made a big tray of this and served it Greek style at my home – a home filled with cute naughty children (some of which were my own might I add), friends and family. Sunday lunch was the way all Sundays should be – filled with inviting scents of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon and high decibel conversation of people jumping between Romney and Obama debates one minute to hearty laughter the next. With so much action, why should any host miss out and be stuck in the kitchen. This dish can be fully prepped ahead of time so that all you need to do is pop it in the oven and show up like a guest.
1 lb ground lamb or beef (chuck)
1 medium sized onion, finely diced
1 tsp. black pepper
Salt to taste
½ tsp. nutmeg
2 bay leaves
1 ½ cups whole peeled tomatoes (crushed)
1 lb. boiled pasta
Handful of breadcrumbs to dust the oven dish
Tbsp. butter to butter oven dish
3 tbsp. plain flour
3 tbsp. butter
2 cups milk
Pinch of nutmeg
2 egg yolks, evenly combined
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1) Sweat the onions with black pepper and salt
2) Add the ground meet and cook on high heat until nice and brown
3) Add the nutmeg, cloves and bay leaves and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes and cook on gentle simmer for 45 minutes covered with a lid
1) Melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Cook on low heat to make a roux for a couple of minutes to lose the raw flavor
2) Combine the yolks and Parmesan cheese. Warm the milk and add to the roux. Allow the béchamel to thicken. When it has a custard consistency, add a couple of tablespoons to the yolks to temper it (this avoids the eggs from cooking when it is added straight to the béchamel) – cook on very low heat for a couple of minutes and remove from heat
1) Butter the oven dish and sprinkle with breadcrumbs
2) Tightly pack the noodles
3) Layer with the meat
4) Spread the béchamel over the top