I grew up in New Jersey, a stone’s throw from New York City. So, I was accustomed to bilingual households. As in our home, it was the norm among my friends to have grandparents and/or parents born outside the U.S.A. America is a melting pot of cultures, and this was, and still is, particularly true in the New York City metropolitan area. In part, this was due to the area’s proximity to Ellis Island*, the main immigrant conduit in the first half of the 20th century. Greater than one third of the U.S. population (this includes me) can trace at least a portion of their ancestry to the 12 million people who landed here between the late 1800s and 1954.
It was a surprise, when I moved to the midwestern U.S.A. to find that many families had to go back a few more generations to find non-American ancestral links. I was even more astounded to find that some of my friends had ancestry linked to the Mayflower — the very first immigrants to the U.S. In general, one can distinguish the coasts and center of the U.S.A. by the extent of ethnic diversity. New immigrants simply took a bit longer to get to the center of our vast country.
But I digress again. I was leading to a story about pastitsio and my high school best friend, Sandy, whose parents and grandparents were born in Greece. When her grandfather came through Ellis Island, he spoke no English. So, when the officials asked his name, he thought they asked about his occupation, to which he replied σφουγγαρά (sponge diver). I’ll never know what her family’s real name had been, because from that day forward, their last name became the Greek pronunciation of “sponge diver”.
Sandy’s family was my first exposure to Greek cuisine. And I suppose it won’t shock you to know that my best friend’s “Ya Ya” (γιαγιά, grandmother), who still couldn’t speak much English but could cook up a storm, would find me at her apron strings during her culinary endeavors. My overall favorite was Ya Ya’s pumpkin in phyllo (κολοκυθόπιτα), but that will need to wait for another post.
This is about another of my favorites, pastitsio, which is among the many delicious Greek dishes that Sandy and Ya Ya introduced me to. Pastitsio is to the Greeks what lasagna is to the Italians — tomato, meat and cheese-based comfort food. They are both delicious dishes. But I particularly love the way pastitsio surprises you with unexpected flavors — allspice, nutmeg, lamb and salty keflatori cheese. If you don’t like lamb, beef can be substituted, and half beef/half lamb works as well. I, however, prefer the strong and sultry taste of lamb — strong enough to contrast with the sweet spices.
Recipe By: A Global Garnish, LLC, inspired by Ya Ya (γιαγιά)
Serving Size: 8
2 onions, medium, chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 pound lamb, ground
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon oregano, 1/8 cup fresh
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup parsley, fresh, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
6 ounces tomato paste
1 cup red wine
1 cup water
15 ounces tomatoes, canned, diced
1 pound pasta, pastitsio, (substitute other tubular pasta such as elbows)
2 tablespoon butter
4 ounces parmesan, grated
9 tablespoons butter
9 tablespoons flour, all purpose
6 cups milk, whole
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, beaten
5 ounces cheese, keflatori, grated
1. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add onions and sweat until translucent. Add garlic and cook a few minutes longer.
2. Add lamb (and beef if you are using it) and cook until no longer pink while chopping into small pieces with a spatula. Add spices and herbs (cinnamon through black pepper) and stir a few minutes longer.
Add tomato paste and stir through. Add red wine and cook until wine has reduced slightly. Then add water and canned tomatoes. Simmer at least 30 minutes — until flavors are blended. Adjust salt and pepper. Let sauce cool to at least room temperature before assembling pastitsio.
3. Cook pasta in salted water – timed according to package directions. Drain, toss with 2 T butter and grated parmesan and place in baking dish (lasagna pan), larger than a 9×13 if you have one.
I prefer to use Greek pastitsio pasta, which resemble a tubular spaghetti. Elbows are a good substitute if you can’t find the Greek pasta.
4. To make the béchamel sauce, begin by melting 9 T butter in a large saucier pan or saucepan. Add 9 T flour. Stir until flour is cooked (the mixture will lose some of the smell of the flour). Add about 1 cup of the milk and stir into roux (flour and butter) until thick. Add remaining milk and whisk constantly until mixture begins to simmer and thicken slightly. Add nutmeg and salt. Beat eggs and temper into the béchamel. Set aside.
- COOKING FUNDAMENTALS: TEMPERING. Tempering eggs allows you to add them to a hot liquid without the eggs solidifying (forming lumps). Instead, you want the eggs to gradually cook into the sauce and thicken it. To do this, whisk rapidly while you pour a bit of the hot liquid, in this case béchamel, in a thin stream into the eggs. You must whisk while adding the hot liquid. Then take the egg/bechamel mixture (now cooler than the original hot béchamel) and whisk quickly into the remaining hot béchamel. This tempering process will keep the eggs from lumping and give you a nice thick sauce that will be even thicker when it is cooled.
5. Preheat oven to 350F.
To assemble, mix ONE HALF of the béchamel into the pasta. Stir to coat pasta with béchamel. Layer the meat sauce on top of the pasta/bechamel mixture. Poke the layers with the handle end of a wooden spoon. This will create channels for the remaining bechamel to permeate the casserole.
Gently pour the remaining béchamel over the top of the meat sauce. It should cover the meat sauce completely. Sprinkle remaining cheese, the Keflatori (you may substitute parmesan or pecarino), on top.
6. Bake uncovered about 45 minutes or until the top begins to brown.
DO-AHEAD DIRECTIONS: Pastitsio is a great do-ahead dish. You can even freeze it for later use with one of the two methods below. The first method will give you a moister dish with a loose texture and softer pasta (the pasta absorbs some water when frozen), and method 2) will give you a slightly dryer final dish but with firmer pasta.
METHOD 1) Bring all the components to room temperature before assembly and freeze immediately after assembly. The day before baking, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Bake as described above in step 6.
METHOD 2) Bake tightly covered just until heated through. If you are using this method, it is best to use a deep dish so the topping does not stick to the cover when baking. After baking, cool and freeze the pastitsio. The day before baking, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Bake as described above in step 6.
* Ellis Island is a must-see if you are visiting New York City for the first time. On a nice day, the island provides great views of the Statue of Liberty and downtown New York City. Most important, it provides a fascinating story about the roots of our vast and diverse country.