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Classic Meals: Pastitsio

The bechamel recipe is adapted form the Yogurt and Olive Oil Bechamel Sauce in The Joy of Cooking

(Don’t be put off my the number of ingredients or steps. This will take 45 minutes to an hour to prepare and then an hour in the oven. It can be prepared in advance and will feed at least 10 people. It makes great leftovers or, even better, it’s a great casserole for parties and picnics.)

What You’ll Need:

For the Lamb Mixture

1 large Onion chopped

1 lb Ground Lamb

1 32 oz. can of Diced Tomatoes

1/2 cup Red Wine

1/4-1/2 tsp Allspice

1 tsp Salt

Pepper to taste

For the Pasta

1 pound long twisty pasta (I used something called strangoloni)

2 cups Kefolatiri Cheese grated on the largest setting plus more for sprinkling (if you can’t find it, use gueyere)

For the Bechamel

3 tbsp Olive Oil

3 tbsp White Whole Wheat Flour

1 cup Milk

1 cup Yogurt

1 cup Kefolatiri Cheese grated on the largest setting

Preheat the oven to 350. Set a casserole pan out.

Fill a pot with salted water and place over a high heat.

At the same time, place a pan over a medium high heat. Add a splash of olive oil and when it shimmers, add the onions. Stir and cook until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the lamb and break it up and mix it well with the onion. Once the lamb is cooked through, pour off any grease. Oftentimes I’ll put it into a metal strainer. Add the tomatoes, wine, allspice, salt and pepper to the mixture, stir and simmer until the water is evaporated.

Meanwhile, once the water has come to a boil, add the pasta and cook until just al dente. You don’t want to overcook it as it will later spend time in the oven absorbing the bechamel and lamb juices so just al dente is perfect. When it’s done, strain the pasta and return it to the pan. Add the cheese and stir well.

Add half the pasta to the casserole pan and spread it out evenly on the bottom. Pour the meat mixture on top, spread it evenly and then spread the rest of the past on top. Set it aside.

To make the bechamel, add the olive oil and flour to a pot. Put it over a medium high heat and whisk it constantly until it starts to froth. Add the milk and yogurt and bring to a boil. Whisk it constantly until it starts to thicken, about 10 minutes. Add the cheese and stir until it’s incorporated. Remove from the heat.

Gently pour the bechamel sauce over the casserole. Sprinkle cheese on top and pop in the oven for an hour until the top is brown and crusty. Let it rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Approximate Cost:
Groceries: $18
Cost per Meal: Expect 10-12 servings

When baby girl was born, I was lonely. None of my local friends were pregnant so while everyone wanted to meet baby girl and play with her occassionally, no one was interested in the nitty gritty of being with a baby all day long… and I was with her all day long. Did I mention that for her first six weeks baby girl screamed her head off day and night unless she was nursing or being walked?

During that time (middle of winter, mind you) I walked the streets every day from 10am to 6pm, stopping periodically to nurse and get a bite to eat. I peeked in shops, walked through central park and bought lots of coffee until night fell and I returned home. The life of a new mom in the city is like that (I’ve no idea about the burbs). Unless you’re one of those lucky people like my cousin whose friends all gave birth at the same time, chances are your child-free friends won’t understand why you’re unavailable so often, your husband will be at work all day and even your mother will have things to tend to other than your newborn (that is, if you’re lucky enough to have your mom nearby, which I wasn’t – tiniest violin in the world, I know).

Finally, I was so desperate to meet people I decided to go to a new moms’ luncheon. I’m not one of those people who make friends easily or who opens up and immediately knows the right thing to say. I’m a writer and my thoughts have always come across best either on the page or when talking to people I know well. My best responses always come hours after the question was asked. But I went and I talked to everyone there like a rabid animal and I exchanged numbers with loads of new mommies who were equally rabid and of those many moms, over the next several months, the numbers dwindled to a few really wonderful women who I adore to this day and whose children baby girl adores.

One of them is Greek-American and is a fabulous cook. She has family recipes for all my favorite Greek foods like spinach pie (spanakopita), moussaka and, the object of today’s post: Pastitsio. If I had several more pages, I’d tell you how I first had Pastitsio as a child with my then best friend whose father was obsessed with all things Greek. He’d take us to Greek festivals and there I would have Pastitsio: a casserole layered with long delicate pasta, a mixture of ground lamb and tomatoes and topped with bechamel sauce. I had no idea what it was called then and sadly, after my then best friend and I lost touch, I had no way to find out until one day when I was chatting with AC, my new mommy friend, and she enlightened me. Then she gave me the recipe and I knew we’d be good friends for a long time.

This recipe is a combination of my friend’s recipe with my own inclinations. I used lamb rather than beef and added allspice, which is a common spice used in Lebanon. I’m an eighth Phoenician so devotion to allspice is inbred. Instead of sprinkling the cheese over the pasta in layers, I mixed it in for a mac n’ cheese effect. I also used my favorite yogurt and olive oil bechamel recipe from The Joy of Cooking. The result is out of this world.