Despite having dozens of fabulous cookbooks and food blogs at my fingertips, my favorite recipe resources are still my friends. Over the years I have found that whenever I swap recipes with a fellow home cook I come away with fantastic meal ideas that can't be found in any printed materials I know of.
My friend Ariana recently gave me her Greek grandmother's recipe for Pastitso, which I requested after she served it during our kid's playgroup. It is a warm, savory casserole full of richly flavored meat and pasta. A truly authentic Greek meal, Ariana grew up eating this at her grandmother's table and now makes it for her own family. I've eaten many plates of Pastitso in my life, but none have tasted as truly original and delicious as this. It is clear that this recipe is straight from the country of it's origin, I have never seen anything like it in a cookbook, and I doubt I ever will.
I almost renounced my Scottish ancestry after I made this at home last weekend. I've always known there is more to Greek culture than big fat weddings, but after being reminded of their delicious food heritage I realized how much my haggis-based roots paled in comparison to the Greek's cheeses, salty olives and sweet pastry pies. Why, I wonder, didn't my Highland-roaming family decamp to the warm Mediterranean for dinner circa 1600? I would have.
To get a little more background on Ariana's tightly knit Greek family and their food, she was kind enough to answer a few questions for all of us:
1. What are the origins of this recipe? Where did you learn to make it? And, do you have any special memories that you associate with this dish?
My grandmother is from a town not far from Athens called Nafpaktos. I can remember taking daily trips to her house (she lived around the corner from my house in Brooklyn). I can still smell the Baklava (walnut honey pie) or Koulourakia (Greek butter cookies) baking in her oven. Just the scent can take me back! She was very proud that I inherited her love of cooking and taught me all about cooking great Greek food.
3. Do you make this for a particular celebration or at certain time of year?
Greeks usually serve this dish as Italians would serve lasagna. It was always at the top of our holiday menus. Especially our Easter feast.
4. What do you usually pair this when serving it to your family?
A big Greek salad and a glass of red wine really complement this dish.
5. How do you plan to pass down your strong Greek heritage and cooking traditions to your beautiful daughter?
Being Greek encompasses so much. We are heavily rooted in family, the Greek language and the church. My daughter and I make an effort of visiting family weekly and try to attend church as often as possible (You know how hard that can be with a toddler!) Recently, she has started taking an interest in what I am cooking. I always explain to her what I am doing and try to use Greek as often as possible. I cannot wait to get her little hands wet with feta, kalamata olives and divine desserts!
This dish is the epitome of cold-weather comfort food and should be on everyone's list of menu ideas this fall. When I made it over the weekend I happily discovered that it is easy to make during my daughter's naptime. In this case I chose to bake it and re-heat it later on, though I'm sure it would last covered in the refrigerator if you wanted to wait until dinner to pop it in the oven. The end result is a delicious cheesy casserole reminiscent of dressed-up macaroni and cheese, only with far more complex flavors from the beef mixture and Kelfalotiri.
Both my husband and daughter adored this dish, especially since I served it after a long afternoon spent outdoors on a brisk fall afternoon. One hearty slice filled our stomachs and warmed us down to the tips of our toes. Ariana was thrilled to hear that we loved her recipe as much as her family does, and offered up several more for delicacies including Spanakopita and Baklava. My mouth started to water just listening to her list of ideas. Honestly, the hardest part for me is going to be deciding what to make next. Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit!)
Ariana's Pastitso (Greek Meat & Macaroni Bake)
a family recipe from her grandmother
For the filling:
1/4 c. olive oil
2 small yellow onions, finely chopped
1 lb. ground beef
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1/4 c. red wine
1 lb. Perciatella pasta (or any long pasta that has ridges or curls for absorbing the sauce)
1 1/2 c. Kefalotiri cheese, grated*
*This soft cheese can usually be found behind any well-stocked cheese counter, it is not expensive.
For Bechamel Sauce:
1/4 c. butter
1/2 c. flour
3 c. whole milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 c. Kefalotiri cheese, grated
1 pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Preheat oven to 400.
2. Heat the oil in a large skillet, add onions and stir until translucent. Add the meat and cook until fully browned. Add the red wine and reduce it by half. Then, add the tomatoes and let the mixture simmer on low-heat for about 30 minutes. If it get's too dry, add a small amount of water to loosen it up.
3. To make the bechamel: Heat the milk in a saucepan over low-heat until it is warm to touch. In a large saucepan melt the butter over low-heat then, working quickly, add the flour and whisk together to make a roux. Whisk for 1 minute to cook the flour slightly. Gradually add the warm milk, stirring constantly so that the mixture stays smooth and everything is fully combined. Keep whisking the sauce until it starts to thicken enough to coat the back of the spoon. Then, remove it from the heat. Crack the eggs into a small bowl and add a small amount of the hot sauce to them and stir to combine. This will temper the eggs so that they don't cook when added into the hot bechamel. Once the eggs are combined, add 3/4 c. of the grated cheese and stir until it is melted and totally incorporated. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Meanwhile, cook pasta in salted water according to package directions. Drain and set aside to cool slightly.
5. Once pasta is cool, toss it with 1 t. olive oil to coat and divide it in half. Spread half of the pasta on the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Cover with a layer of the grated cheese and all of the meat mixture. Top meat mixture with the remaining half of pasta.
6. Pour bechamel over the pasta and sprinkle remaining 1/4 c. of grated cheese over the top. Bake for 30 minutes, or until top is brown.
Naptime Recipe Props: This recipe is newer to me and has already earned a permanent spot in my recipe binder. Everyone in my family loved it's cheesey baked goodness, and I loved that the size was large enough to feed us for at least two nights.
Naptime Stopwatch: Preparing this dish takes about 45 minutes, but after that it is fairly quick to bake. Remember, spending an hour on one dish is made up with the time you save the next evening - when you don't have to cook at all!
Naptime Reviews: As noted above, this is a family dish that is great for serving children and adults. My daughter liked slurping her noodles like they were spaghetti - her newest favorite table trick!