Friday, April 6, 2012

Greek Feast Part 1: Pastitsio

I learned to make Pastitsio many years ago, coming across this recipe in a women's magazine. I'm not sure how authentic it is, only that it is delicious. I do know that I shared the recipe with a friend who made it for her Greek Dad (a former chef, BTW), who seemed to really enjoy it. I don't know if he was just being kind, but I do know that whenever I have served it, to family and friends alike, they seem to love it.

It's a pasta dish that includes a well seasoned meat sauce along with a cheesy bechamel topping....what's not to love? As for the "feast" mentioned in the title, I usually complete this meal with homemade olive bread, spanokopitas (phyllo dough triangles stuffed with spinach and feta cheese), a green salad topped with crumbled feta, olives and a red wine vinaigrette, and, for a really special end to the meal, baklava (a nutty, honey drenched phyllo concoction)--all recipes for future posts.

The original recipe uses ground beef, but I usually make it with ground turkey breast now, to reduce the fat and cholesterol content. I don't skimp on the cheese, though, as that's where the dish gets most of its flavor--everything in moderation! For vegetarians, I use a ground beef substitute, with equally delicious results. A bonus to this dish is that it can be made the day ahead and baked on the day you need it. If you have refrigerated it overnight, plan to bake it a bit longer, perhaps 45 minutes to an hour, at a lower temp, around 300°, so the top doesn't get overly brown before the inside is hot.

Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 350°


For the pan:
1 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

For the filling:
1-1/2 lb. 97% lean ground beef or 99% lean turkey breast
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
dash pepper
1-1/2 lb. elbow macaroni
1 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

For the sauce:
3 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1-1/2 cups milk
1 egg
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. (If I'm using a Pyrex pan, I do this in the microwave. Otherwise, I just sit the baking pan on top of the pot of boiling pasta until the butter melts.) Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup of the grated Romano evenly into the pan. Set aside. Brown the ground beef or turkey breast, onion and garlic in a large frying pan and drain in a colander to remove any fat (if using turkey, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan and skip the draining, as there won't be any excess fat). Return to pan, then add the tomato sauce, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside. Meanwhile, cook the elbow macaroni in plenty of unsalted boiling water until barely done, drain, return pasta to the cooking pot and stir in 1 tablespoon butter. Pour half of the elbows into the prepared baking pan. Spoon the ground meat mixture evenly over the pasta. Top with the remaining elbows. Sprinkle 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese over the elbows. Set aside. Whisk together the butter and flour in a 2 quart saucepan over low heat until bubbly. Add the milk and simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat. Beat egg in a small bowl. Add a couple of tablespoons of the hot sauce into the egg, stirring constantly, then quickly whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan. Return the pan to low heat just until it starts to bubble again, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1/4 cup grated Romano. Spoon the sauce evenly over the pasta in the baking pan. Bake it uncovered at 350° for about 30 to 45 minutes or until lightly browned.

Notes & Pointers:
The dish has a total of 3/4 cup of Romano cheese so don't add salt to the pasta cooking water or the finished dish will be too salty!

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