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Sunday, 2 March 2008

Pastitsio (Παστίτσιο - Greek lasagne)

I like a well-stocked freezer. It makes me feel relaxed. I know that even if I don't have enough time to cook (and how could I, when I spend so much of my time blogging), there will always be something in the freezer that I have cooked myself, to serve up to the whole family. When I'm having a busy (or lazy) day, I love asking each member of the family what they would like to eat, and hearing them all give me different answers: one little boy wants pastitsio, one big boy wants papoutsakia, and one little girl wants Chinese noodles - just to show that she has her own opinion; she was simply not as fast as her brother in responding to the question (I don't count, as I always eat everybody's leftovers). When I tell them that their wish is granted, one of them will always turn around and say to me: "You're going to cook all three?" In fact, I only cook one, and that's the noodles. The other two are stored in serving size tupperware portions in the deep freeze.

Today, it's time to stock up the freezer again with pastitsio, the Greek version of lasagne (or is it lasagna, as my Italian is not up to scratch). A very filling tasty meal, a children's favorite, easy to make in large batches, perfect for freezing, wish I could just serve it up every day because it's that simple and that tasty. To serve it from the freezer, I place the number of servings I want in an oven dish, heat the oven up to a moderate temperature, let the pastitsio (or moussaka or papoutsakia for that matter) thaw out and gradually warm up on its own, and it's usually ready in 20 minutes. Of course, you can also heat it up in the microwave, if you enjoy zapping your food, in the same way that you zap channels. Microwave culture suits television culture well. It tastes as fresh as the day you made it when you heat it up in the oven rather than the microwave.

I like to buy mince from a local village butcher. He has a pleasant manner, and the meat we buy from there always looks fresh and clean. He takes great pride in keeping the place spotless. The display unit is stocked these pre-Lenten days with the most delectable cuts of meat - spicy sausages, meat patties, souvlaki sticks, fatty pilafi chicken, lean chicken for roasting, lamb cutlets, pork chops... The list is endless. As you look at the range of cuts, I guarantee you will be dreaming of the BBQ, warm weather and fresh salads. He also mixes pork and beef mince meat for tasty spag bog and meat patties. In fact, spag bog cooked mince forms the basis of my pastitsio sauce; I cook the same mixture for spaghetti sauce, moussaka, papoutsakia, and have also used it to make cottage pie.

For the mince mixture, you need:
1 kilo of lean mince (pork, beef or a mixture - lamb mince is never used in Hania) - fatty mince will simply not reduce enough to get that dry consistency which is needed for pastitsio or moussaka
1/4 cup olive oil
1 large onion
3-4 cloves of garlic
1/2 glass of wine
1 eggplant AND/OR 1 large carrot AND/OR 2 bells peppers AND/OR 3 large mushrooms. all finely chopped (this is purely my novel twist to the classic recipe - how else do you get children to eat their veges?)
1/2 kilo of fresh tomatos, pureed (tinned ones do nicely when fresh tomatos aren't available, and just recently, I've been buying organically grown tinned tomatos, which smell and taste as good as fresh summer ones)
1 teaspoon of tomato paste
salt, pepper, oregano to taste










Heat the oil in a pot, and saute the onions and garlic till translucent. Add the mince and let it brown all over. The more time it is given to sizzle in the oil, the tastier it becomes. When it is well-browned, pour the wine over it, and let the mince cook to draw out the flavour of the wine. If you do decide to use the finely chopped vegetables, add them into the mixture at this point, so that they will blend in with the mince, turning them over to mix them in well. Now add the tomatos and paste, along with just enough water to cover the mixture up to no more than 0.5cm above the mince mixture. This is important because mince cooked for pastitsio (as well as moussaka and papoutsakia) must not be made into a sauce, as for spag bog. It will be added to thick spaghetti which will become soggy if there is too much liquid in the mince. Add the salt, pepper and oregano, cover the pot, and let the mince cook for at least 40 minutes, till most of the liquid has been absorbed.











For the macaroni you need:
500g fat macaroni with a hole in the middle (as a guide, I use Barilla No 10)
250g grated cheese (regato is excellent; gouda or edam are also good choices)
salt and pepper to taste
Boil a large pot of water and add the macaroni as the water boils. Cook it till al dente, and drain it well. (If anyone knows of a foolproof method to boil macaroni without sticking to each other, and without having to resort to using a cauldron, or cooking it up in small batches, do let me know; a few drops of oil do not seem to do the trick.) Sprinkle it with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper. Pour the macaroni into a big baking dish. Sprinkle the grated cheese into the cooked pasta, so that it melts with the heat from the macaroni. Now pour over the cooked mince and mix it into the macaroni. Here is my favorite part of the recipe: if you think there is too much mince mixture to add it all to the macaroni, put the remaining mixture into a container and deep-freeze it. The next time you want to eat spaghetti bolognaise, all you will have to do is defrost it, boil up the spaghetti, and voilà, another simple meal for a busy schedule.











For the bechamel sauce, you need
:
2 cups of milk
2 tablespoons of flour
2 teaspoons of butter
1 egg AND/OR some grated cheese (these two ingredients are optional - the sauce is thicker and fattier if you include them)
grated nutmeg to taste
This sauce makes a thin covering for a large oven tin of pastitsio. Most people would use up to double the milk, flour and butter for a heavier sauce. We prefer a lighter sauce; whether you double the sauce is up to you.
This sauce is also exactly the same one used for moussaka and papoutsakia. You can also nake the sauce saving yourself time and hassle by using the same pot that you used to cook the mince. It also gives the sauce a meaty taste.
Mix the milk, flour and butter together in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the beaten egg and/or cheese if you wish to use them. Mix the sauce till it thickens. Don't leave the pot at this stage, as the sauce might stick to the bottom. Once the sauce starts to set, pour it evenly over the mince and pasta. Sprinkle some grated cheese over the top of the sauce for a crustier taste (that is, if you didn't already add any into the white sauce). Grate some nutmeg over the sauce; the aroma is intoxicating! I grated the nutmeg straight into the sauce, because I didn;t want the little boy, the big boy and the little girl asking me: "What are those black things on the macaroni, Mum?"

Cook the lasagne in a medium oven for an hour. The ingredients were all essentially cooked before going into the oven, so they only need to blend in with each other. When the pastitsio is done (the top will have taken on a golden colour), leave it to cool before cutting, so that it is allowed to set to a point that makes the dish easy to cut and serve. Cutting it when it is still hot will only spoil its appearance, making it less appetising. If the pastitsio is mainly for freezing, make sure it has cooled right down before cutting it. Have a freshly cut lettuce salad ready to accompany it. Kids and adults alike will love this meal. The big deep tapsi (the Greek word for an oven dish) makes enough pastitsio for 12-14 servings. Funnily enough, my mother hardly ever made this meal, because she preferred spag bog, although her sister, my aunt who lived across the road made it regularly. On her last visit, she even cooked one for me in my house. That's why I always associate pastitsio with my aunt, and I dedicate this post to her.

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MORE PASTA RECIPES:
Puttanesca
Bologanise
Stir-fry noodles
Stir-fry beef
Blue dragon
Octopus stew
Tuna pasta
Mussels sauce
Pizza carbonara

MORE MINCE RECIPES:
Biftekia
Chili con carne
Dolmades
Makaronada
Moussaka
Cottage pie
Papoutsakia
Soutzoukakia