Dear readers… I wrote this post nearly two weeks ago, but my laptop died somewhere along the way. I hope you enjoy the memories of the London snow & the recipe for pastitsio (regular, vegetarian & gluten-free versions)….
London has been blanketed in a rare covering of snow these last few days and from what I can see, its only us owners of large dogs who dare to don our arctic gear and bravely head out into the 2 inches of snow. It gives me a chance to show off my new down coat from UniQlo – a Christmas present from my mother. Despite the fact that I am constantly cold in the general London state of damp, I feel oddly warm when out in the snow; so after this morning’s excursion through Peckham Rye Park, Gwenny (the dog) and I elected to spend some time in the front garden brushing clear the walkway of snow, just enjoying the quiet as the snow continued to fall.
Cold weather requires some serious carbs and in anticipation of today’s serious snowfall, I spent yesterday morning dragging Mr Harris through Waitrose to get the ingredients for a pastitsio – something I had never made before. Having spent the last 25 years as a pescatarian, I also had no idea how it was meant to taste either. I normally turn to Vefa’s Kitchen whenever I decide to try a new Greek recipe, but on this occasion I decided to try Rick Stein’s version.
Here’s Rick making his recipe:
First of all, let me say that to anyone who describes this pastitsio as a ‘Greek lasagne’ – you are doing pastitsio a severe injustice. Its actually nothing like a Greek lasagne, except that both involve ragu and pasta in a sort of layering system. Ok, so I can see why you would describe it as a Greek lasagne, but I can’t tell you how much infinitely better pastitsio is. Sorry to any Italian readers, but its true.
I went to great pains to make two versions – mine was made with gluten-free corn penne and Quorn mince. Mr Harris’ version was made with tortiglioni and mince from some of Prince Charles’ horribly expensive aberdeen angus cows. I knew that all the extra work & additional expense in making two versions was totally worth it when my husband tried a mouthful of each and announced “yeah…actually, you can’t really tell the difference”. I suspect the reason for that is because of the incredibly pungent and yet extremely counterintuitive combination of Greek flavours: oregano, cinnamon & tomato. It gives that…what’s the Greek for ‘je ne sais quois’? (According to my Babylon translator that’s Δεν ξέρω τι.) Ok, so it gives that Δεν ξέρω τι to a lot of Greek dishes. It feels wrong, but as soon as the oregano liberates its fragrant oil and the cinnamon sticks start to soften and unfurl and release their flavours slowly into the sauce, the smell is distinct and the flavour does not disappoint. It tastes exactly as its meant to and all the oregano in the world alone cannot achieve it without the accompanying cinnamon.
A few pointers along the way. I will say that when making the white sauce, this is not the time for skimmed milk. I used a combination of whole milk and 2% milk. It needs to be rich, creamy, calorific and very nutmeggy. Also, tomato paste. It comes in metal tubes and they last for ages when kept in the fridge. Why buy a jar which will be half used and covered in a field of fuzzy mould next week? Unless you actually cook with it everyday, just stock up on tubes of proper Italian or Greek tomato paste and keep them in the fridge after they’ve been opened. I have included my notes on how to make vegetarian & gluten free adaptations of the recipe at the bottom.
For the meat sauce
4 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 kg lean minced beef
200 ml red wine
500 ml passata
4 tbsp tomato paste
2 x 10 cm cinnamon sticks
¼ tsp ground cloves
2 tbsp dried oregano, Greek if possible
2 tbsp fresh chopped oregano
3 fresh bay leaves
For the pasta
500 g tubularpasta, such as rigatoni, tubetti or tortiglioni
2 eggs, lightly beaten
50 g Greek kefalotiri cheese or parmesan, finely grated
2 tbsp butter, melted, for greasing
10 g fresh white breadcrumbs
For the white sauce
115 g butter
115 g plain flour
1.2 litres whole milk, plus a little extra
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1. For the meat sauce: heat the olive oil in a medium-sized pan. Add the onion & garlic and fry until just beginning to brown. Add the minced beef and fry over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, breaking up any lumps with the wooden spoon. (If you’re making the vegetarian version, don’t add the Quorn here – just cook the sauce down on its own and add the Quorn at the very end)
2. Add the red wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon stick, ground cloves, dried and fresh oregano, bay leaves, 100ml water, 1½ teaspoons salt and some black pepper. Simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring now and then, until the sauce has thickened but is still nicely moist. Discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaves.
3. For the pasta: bring 4.5 litres water to the boil in a large saucepan with 8 teaspoons salt. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, taking care not to overcook as the pasta will cook a little further in the oven. Drain well, transfer to a large bowl and leave to cool slightly.
4. For the white sauce: melt the butter in a medium-sized non-stick saucepan. Add the flour and cook, stirring, over a medium heat for 1 minute. Gradually beat in the milk, then bring to the boil, stirring. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper to taste.
5. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Stir 250ml (about one-fifth) of the white sauce into the warm pasta with the beaten eggs and half the grated cheese. Keep the remaining sauce warm over a low heat, stirring now and then and adding more milk if it begins to get a little thick.
6. Use the melted butter to grease a large, shallow ovenproof dish that measures about 23cm x 33cm x 7cm. Spread one-third of the pasta over the base of the dish and cover with half the meat sauce. Add another third of the pasta, then the rest of the meat sauce, then a final layer of pasta.
7. Spoon over the remaining white sauce. Mix the last of the grated cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the top. Bake for 40 minutes, or until bubbling hot and golden brown. This recipe makes 10-12 portions.
Vegetarian version: If you’re making a vegetarian version, exchange the meat for two boxes of Quorn mince, but don’t let it stew in the tomato sauce as you would with the meat. Just add it to the tomato sauce at the very end, just before you start the layering process. Be sure to use a vegetarian parmesan if you’re not using the Greek cheese.
Gluten-free version: I made my version gluten-free by using gluten-free flour in the white sauce, gluten free Dove’s Farm corn penne and gluten free breadcrumbs. I keep an inexpensive stockpile of gluten-free breadcrumbs by whizzing leftover slices of Sainsbury’s disgusting Free From gluten free white bread in the food processor, letting it dry out on a baking tray, and storing it in a large tupperware container, for future use.