For me, this is one of the classic Greek recipes of my childhood. I cut my first teeth on bowls of the stuff and it remains as one of my all time favourite meals. A simple but satisfying lunch or dinner, this Greek pasta dish is a bona fide gem.
Those of you that are familiar with the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding ought to get a chuckle out of this posting. As you will recall from the movie, the father of the bride, Mr. Gus Portokalos (as played by actor Michael Constantine), had a folksy habit of pointing out the Greek etymological origins of common English words. Well then, as Mr. Portokalos might say:
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word macaroni is originally derived from the Greek word makaria ‘food made from barley’ (μακαρία in Gk., pronounced mah-kah-REE-yah). Barley was an all-purpose grain for the ancients and barley meal was used for a variety of purposes including bread baking and as part of sacrificial rites. The makaria was a traditional ancient Greek food eaten at an individual’s wake, which for the Greeks - as with the Irish - is a reception held after a funeral. Some two millennia have passed since this culinary term first appears in the available Greek literature. To this day, the customary dish served at a Greek wake is known as makaronia (pronounced mah-kah-RO-nee-yah).
Now, the makaronia served at a wake are known as spaghetti in English, and are simply served with a grated Greek cheese known as mizithra or myzithra (pronounced mee-TZEE-thrah) and browned butter. On the other hand, the common everyday ‘garden-variety’ makaronia are similar to what the Italians refer to as tubetti, short tubular pasta shapes. Now, if it happens to be makaronia served with meat sauce it becomes a makaronada (pronounced mah-kah-ro-NAH-tha) and it is always made with a spaghetti type noodle. All quite confusing, I know, but it makes sense to the Greeks, trust me. One more thing, the meat sauce variety is never served at a wake, though the meatless cheese and browned butter variant which is served can also be referred to as a makaronada… [Grin.]
Some mizithra we brought back from Greece - Click to Enlarge Image
It is impossible to write about makaronia and makaronada and not spend some time on mizithra cheese. Mizithra is a traditional Greek cheese and is the forebear of all whey cheeses. It has been made in much the same manner for thousands of years and has its own distinctive aroma and flavour. Mizithra is made from sheep and/or goat milk and can come in a fresh, soft and spreadable form; or aged and shaped almost like a fat-bottomed pear in a hard, salty ball. The soft mizithra has an almost sweet flavour and is used as a spreadable cheese or in baked goods and pastries. On the other hand, the aged salty mizithra variety is almost exclusively used for makaronia and makaronada dishes. Mizithra cheese is designated as PDO/PGI by the European Union.
In my grandmother’s time and for ages before her, the mizithra cheese that was to be dried and aged was hung outdoors in cloth squares called tsantilas (or τσαντίλα in Gk.). A tsantila was pinned up by its four corners and hung from a tree branch; the mass of drying cheese remained suspended in the resulting ball shape which its weight formed in the bottom of the hanging cloth. That is how the hard mizithra cheese gained its distinctive fat bottomed pear-like shape. Now, if you look but cannot find any mizithra at a cheese shop near you, try using parmesan as a substitute (but only as a last resort as the flavour is not the same). Note: Greeks do not use parmesan in traditional pasta dishes, we generally use mizithra. Once you have grated mizithra on your makaronia, you may just develop a taste for it.
1 lb (½ kg.) lean ground veal
1 white onion (diced)
1 clove of garlic (peeled but whole)
1 medium sized cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 ½ cups (375 ml.) fresh strained tomato juice (or ¼ cup tomato paste diluted in 1½ cups of water.)
¼ cup (60 ml.) white wine
⅓ cup (80 ml.) Greek extra virgin olive oil
Spaghetti style pasta
Grated mizithra cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the diced onion until soft. Add the ground veal to the pan and stir it up well to break it up thoroughly. Keep stirring over a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so to brown all of the meat and mingle it completely with the onion.
- Once the meat is browned, add salt and pepper to taste, the wine, and then add the fresh tomato juice (or tomato paste diluted in water) to the pan and mix well. Bring to a boil, add the cinnamon stick, bay leaves and whole garlic clove to the pan, cover them in the sauce, then reduce the heat to a medium low; cover the pan leaving it only slightly uncovered to allow the water to evaporate as steam and then simmer for 30 minutes. We want the sauce to reduce such that the water is steamed away and the tomato and cinnamon hinted olive oil is left behind with the meat. Stir the sauce occasionally to allow the cinnamon essence to completely suffuse the sauce. Note: the cinnamon stick should be no longer than 2 inches (5cm.) as we want the cinnamon to flavour the sauce but not too intensely. When ready, the meat will have absorbed all of the liquid.
- Boil pasta in a pot until done to your preference, then strain and serve it with a generous sprinkling of grated mizithra cheese and then spoon the meat sauce overtop. Make sure to stir the meat sauce up before spooning it out to get some of the orange tinted olive oil in each helping. Mix the meat and pasta in your plate/bowl and then get down to business!
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit),
Kali Orexi! (Bon Appetit),
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.
Note: Mizithra can also be spelled as Myzithra cheese in English.