May it Please the Palate: A hot, fat mess

The Greek recipes I present are usually of the Mediterranean "heart-smart" variety. Today's dish is a traditional exception. "Pastitsio" is a layered Greek pasta dish with a creamy béchamel topping. Its name in Italian ("pasticcio") literally means "a mess," and it is related to the elaborate timbales of Italian cooking, meat and pasta encased in pastry. (Ever seen the movie "Big Night?" Sometimes pastitsio is even referred to as "Greek lasagne."

No matter the language, this dish is generously endowed. Its loaded with pasta, butter, eggs, meat, and cheese. When prepared correctly, it has a surprisingly light and fluffy texture.

Pastitsio is unusual in calling for butter and beef in lieu of olive oil and lamb. There are many regional variations, which may include lamb, pork, or veal--but always butter. Olive oil doesn't match up well here. It's like sending St. Francis on a date with one of the Kardashian sisters.

This hearty recipe is adapted from the ladies of the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle. I must admit I was dubious, with nine eggs and a stick and a half of butter. Yes, there are ways to lighten the recipe, if you must. But the result is so delicious, and so satisfying, that a small piece of pastitsio - along with a salad, and a five-mile run--will leave you feeling amazingly light and refreshed.

Pastitsio

Meat Sauce

6 TBS butter, divided (2 + 4 TBS)

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped (3/4 cup)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/4 lb ground beef

1 16oz can crushed tomatoes

1/2 cup tomato sauce

1/2 cup water (you can substitute 1 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes for these last three ingredients, but why make it easy?)

1 tsp salt

1/8 tsp black pepper

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground cloves

Sauté the onions and garlic in 2 TBS butter until just starting to turn golden brown. Add remaining 4 TBS butter and the ground meat, and brown. (Wait - half a stick of butter with the ground beef, and he doesn't even drain the beef when it's done? Whoa.)

Add remaining ingredients and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and you have a thick sauce. Set aside.

Noodles

3/4 lb of pastitsio noodles. ("Macaroni Pastitsio #2," Misko brand. If you can't get them in a specialty store, long ziti will do.)

1/4 cup butter, melted

6 eggs, beaten (I really had to stop at 3 eggs here.)

1 cup grated parmesan

Cook the noodles for 7 or 8 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water. Drain well and place in a large bowl. Add the melted butter, beaten eggs, and grated cheese and toss well.

Put half of the pasta mixture into the bottom of a greased 8x10 or 9x9 pan. (If using the Greek pastitsio noodles, lay them parallel for visual effect when the dish is cut. If using a shorter pan, you will have to curl the ends or cut the ends off.)

Top with the meat mixture and cover the meat with the remaining half of the pasta.

Béchamel

6 TBS butter

6 TBS flour

2 cups warm milk (I always use whole. Substituting an equal amount of Greek yogurt for half the milk will give the dish a little more tang.)

3 eggs, beaten (again ...)

1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/2 tsp salt

dash white pepper

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour, stirring constantly to make a roux. Add the heated milk a little at a time, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and smooth.

Stir a little sauce into the bowl of beaten eggs to prevent curdling, then stir the egg mixture into the saucepan. Simmer until thickened. Add nutmeg, salt, and white pepper.

Pour the sauce over the top layer of macaroni. Smooth with a spoon or spatula. Bake at 350° for 20-25 minutes until the top is delicately browned. Let it rest for 10-15 minutes before serving.

It's a perfect party or pot luck dish. So what if it's not heart-smart? Trust the recipe, and your taste buds will think you're a sage.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate. blogspot.com/.

Published: Thu, Jun 6, 2013

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