Complete List of Recipes & Reflections

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pastitsio Perfection (Παστίτσιο)

Pastitsio is to Greek cuisine what Lasagna is to Italian cooking. This classic Greek recipe makes for an excellent winter comfort meal. Served with a side of mixed green salad dressed with wine vinegar and Greek extra virgin olive oil, this is one meal that is sure to please guests and family.

A piece of Pastichio Perfection. Click to Enlarge Image.

Now, I am not in the habit of watching much television, especially the daytime major American network programs. However, today, as I was feeding my son his bottle I happened to catch Rachel Ray making what she called “Greek Baked Ziti” which we Greeks know as Pastitsio [pronounced as pa-STEE-tsee-oh]. At best, it was amusing to watch her pretend to know what she was doing. Unfortunately, within a few minutes it became painfully obvious that she really did not have a clue; and when her frustration started to show, it was embarrassing to think that her audience would walk away with such a bastardized version of a classic Greek food recipe planted in their heads.

So, in order to straighten Rachel out, I thought I would offer up my mother’s recipe for Pastitsio. I have been enjoying this dish as long as I can remember - it happens to be one of my all-time favourite Greek recipes. There are three components in the construction of this famous pasta casserole dish, and each must be attended to individually before combining them to achieve the final product.

The first component is a ground meat sauce which is similar to one that Greeks often serve over macaroni as detailed in my previous post: Macaroni, Makaronia, Makaronada, and Pasta… Similar, but not the same; one does not add cinnamon or any other aromatic spice to the meat sauce for Pastitsio. Why? Because it is overkill! Only the top layer of Béchamel Sauce gets a hint of nutmeg which then permeates the casserole as it bakes. I have seen so-called Pastitsio recipes on some other blogs which mix cinnamon and allspice in with the meat sauce, and then they complete their muddle of flavours with the requisite nutmeg in the Béchamel sauce!

Next, you need to use the right pasta. Several Greek brands of what is known as the “No. 2” macaroni shape are available in Greece and in Greek specialty shops abroad (also in some of the better stocked mainstream supermarkets). However, if you do not happen to have a Greek market, deli, or bakery nearby, and simply cannot find the Greek pasta, you can use either one of two more widely available Italian pasta shapes which are similar to the Greek noodle, these are as follows:
  • Buctani: A thick Spaghetti style pasta which is hollow through the center, similar to a drinking straw. (Of the two Italian shapes listed here, this one is the closer approximation to the Greek No. 2 pasta size).
  • Ziti: A larger diameter long-cut and smooth surface hollow (tubular) pasta shape.
Though it is also possible to use Penne pasta for this dish (my mother-in-law often does) I prefer sticking as close as possible to the classic composition for the sake of authenticity and ease of assembly.

Lastly, there is the Béchamel (i.e. White) Sauce that is poured overtop of the assembled casserole before it goes into the oven, and which forms a wonderful top layer and slight crust to the dish. For another classic béchamel-topped Greek casserole dish see my Marvelous Moussaka recipe.

My Pastitsio straight out of the oven. Click to Enlarge Image.

I used a CorningWare 2.5-qt. Oval Casserole without the lid to bake my Pastitsio. The depth of this type of baking dish allows for a nice layered height in the finished product. As with many Greek recipes, and most especially with casseroles, this dish is best consumed on the following day after its baking; simply refrigerate and heat well before cutting and serving.

Ingredients:

The Meat Sauce

1 ½ lbs. ground veal (or beef, though minced lamb can also be used)
1 large or 2 medium-sized yellow onion(s), finely diced
1 tsp. (5 ml.) dried rosemary
2 bay leaves
2 cloves of garlic, grated
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
¼ cup (60 ml.) - cup (80 ml.) Greek extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

The Pasta

1 lb. of Greek No.2 pasta (or Bucatini, or Ziti, as noted above)
2 tbsp. (30ml.) Greek extra virgin olive oil
3 egg whites, beaten (the yolks will be used in the béchamel sauce)
¼ cup (60 ml.) grated Kefalotyri (or Parmesan cheese if you try but cannot find the Greek cheese)

The Béchamel Sauce

4 cups (1 litre) of scalded milk
1 cup (250 ml.) all-purpose flour
¾ cup (180 ml.) grated Kefalotyri (or Parmesan cheese if you really cannot find the Greek cheese)
½ cup (125 ml.) of salted butter
3 egg yolks, well beaten
½ - 1 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

Assembly:
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sauté the diced onion(s) over a medium heat until soft. Add the ground veal to the pan and break it up thoroughly. Keep stirring constantly over a medium high heat for 5 minutes or so to brown all of the meat and mingle it completely with the onion.
  2. Once the meat is completely browned, add the rosemary, garlic, wine, and the fresh tomato juice (or tomato paste diluted in water) to the pan along with salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. Bring to a boil, add the bay leaves and make sure to immerse them in the sauce, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pan with its lid leaving it only slightly uncovered to allow the excess water to evaporate as steam. Simmer for about 30 minutes or so. Stir the sauce occasionally. When ready, the meat will have absorbed the liquid in the pan. Remove the bay leaves and set aside when done.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, add the pasta to the water and parboil it until soft but not fully cooked (about 3/4 of the suggested cooking time on the package).
  4. While the pasta is cooking, make the béchamel sauce. Start by melting the butter in a deep saucepan over a medium heat, then, using a whisk or immersion blender with a whisk attachment, slowly incorporate the flour by adding it to the melted butter in stages while stirring continually to avoid the formation of lumps. Once the flour has been fully incorporated, slowly add the hot milk while continuing to constantly stir the butter and flour paste to ensure a smooth consistency. Once the milk has been added, remove the saucepan from the heat and add the grated cheese, nutmeg, pepper and egg yolks in that order while continuing to rapidly stir the mixture. Set aside when smooth and well-mixed. However, do not let it stand for too long without a good stirring as you do not want the top to start congealing. By this point your pasta should be ready.
  5. Drain the water completely from the pasta pot and return pot with pasta to the heat, add the two tablespoons of olive oil to the pasta and mix well to ensure a thorough coating of oil as we do not want the pasta to get sticky. Remove the pot from the heat, let stand for a few minutes to cool and then add the egg whites to the pasta, along with the ¼ cup of grated Kefalotyri cheese and mix well, then set aside momentarily.
  6. Rub a little olive into the sides and bottom of your baking dish, and then add about two-thirds of the pasta to the dish to form a bottom layer. Make sure to spread the pasta evenly in order to completely cover the bottom of the dish, make sure not to leave any empty spaces.
  7. Spread the meat sauce overtop of the bottom pasta layer, ensuring to distribute it evenly and right to the edges of the casserole. The meat layer must be of uniform thickness and must not have any gaps.
  8. Add the remaining pasta overtop of the meat layer, distributing it evenly.
  9. Pour the béchamel sauce over of the final pasta layer, make sure to cover the entire surface area of the dish.
  10. Place the casserole uncovered in an oven pre-heated to 350°F (180°C) and bake for approximately 30 minutes, or until the béchamel sauce is golden brown.
  11. Remove casserole from oven and set aside to cool before serving. As already mentioned above, this dish is best served on the following day after its baking. However, if you must eat it on the same day, make sure it has a chance to cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting it into pieces. Do not make the mistake of cutting it before it has had a chance to cool, you will end up with messy servings. Cut it only when it has cooled, (ideally overnight in the refrigerator) and warm the pieces before serving.
Makes approximately 8 generous servings

There you have it, Pastitsio Perfection!

Pánta Kalá (Always Be Well),

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.

P.S. Rachel, if you happen to read this, I would be more than happy to show you how to make this dish in person. :-)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Leek Pie - Prassopita (Πρασόπιτα)

An easy to make and very tasty traditional leek pie recipe from North Western Greece. If you like leeks, you will love this pie.

Straight from out of the oven. Click to Enlarge Image.

Leeks are my favourite seasonal vegetable this time of year. They have been an ingredient and seasoning in Greek food since the earliest times. Among the ancient Delphians, leeks were included in ritual offerings to Leto (mother of Apollo and Artemis) during their Theoxenia or “Banquet of the Gods” festival. It was believed that Leto had craved leeks while pregnant with the twins, thus a contest was instituted in her honour in which only the largest leeks were selected to be added to the offerings table. The producer whose leek(s) won the contest would be rewarded with a portion from the collected offerings. Leeks as thick around as radishes and turnips were reported. Interestingly, there appears to have been some kind of relationship between divine twins and leeks. For, it was also related that the ancient Athenians included leeks in their customary offerings to the Dioscuri.

A slice of prasópita anyone? Click to Enlarge image.

Today, Greek cuisine offers many variations on the use of leeks. They are included in everything from sausage stuffing to soups and stews, and are often baked into ‘pies’ or pites (pronounced “PEE-tess”) as we say in Greek. For those of you who do not relish the idea of making pites with phyllo pastry (cf. filo), this version will make your life easier, as well as add some excellent texture and flavour to your winter table.

Ingredients:

3 - 4 large leeks, sliced thinly (upper dark green stalks removed)
3 large eggs
1 ½ cups of milk
1 cup crumbled Greek feta cheese
¾ cup all-purpose flour
½ cup Greek extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup fresh green onion, finely chopped
¼ cup fresh dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon dried Greek oregano
Fresh-ground pepper
A pinch of salt

  1. Heat the olive oil in a pan and sauté the leeks for about 5 minutes, then add the fresh green onion and continue sautéing until both are soft and tender (another 3 minutes or so).
  2. In a large bowl, beat the eggs well then add the milk, feta cheese, flour, dill, oregano, salt and pepper and sautéed leeks and onions and mix well.
  3. Grease the sides of your pie dish/pan with some olive oil, pour the mixture to the dish/pan then bake for about1 hour in an oven pre-heated to 350°F (180° C).

Allow to cool before cutting. Can be served warm or at room temperature.

Personally, I prefer serving this on the following day to allow the flavours time to meld. I usually refrigerate the pie once it has cooled to room temperature and then cut and warm the slices as need.

Kali Orexi! (Bon Appétit),


Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
http://www.greekgourmand.com
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy New Year & Vasilopita

When I was young, my sister and I would go to Danforth Avenue (Toronto's Greek town) on the morning of New Year's Eve and sing the "Kalanta" at the doorways of all the Greek owned businesses on the street. The shopkeepers would reward us with money and good wishes for a lucky and happy New Year. This custom goes back a couple millenia and is an outgrowth of ancient pagan celebrations at the beginning of each calendar month, signifying the start of the new moon cycle. Indeed, the name "Kalanta" is derived from the ancient Roman (Latin) word "Calends". Like many other pagan customs, the "Kalanta" were later subsumed within the Byzantine Christian traditions which replaced the old ways, and were transmitted right down to our present day as folk customs.

A slice of Vasilopita

On New Year's Day, wherever they may happen to live, Greeks come together with their families and friends for the traditional cutting of the Vasilopita (King's Cake). The event centres around the cake itself, for which there are a number of regional recipe variations ranging from a sweet bread, to a cake, to a phyllo-based pita-style version; though the traditional recipe was standardized by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian sometime in the 6th Century and is best characterized as a sweet bread, almost a cake. The ritual of cutting the Vasilopita has nothing to do with the edible constituent ingredients of the Vasilopita itself. Instead, the focus is on 1) the inedible ingredient, usually only one coin, and 2) the invisible ingredient: the love of family, friends, and community, which binds and brings together all those who take part in the Vasilopita tradition by accepting a piece of the cake when it is cut. 

First, the coin. The coin is called a 'flouri' [pronounced FLOO-REE, remember to roll the 'R']. The flouri is added to the dough and baked right into the Vasilopita, and upon its cutting, one of the recipients of its pieces will find the flouri in their portion. The fortunate soul who so finds the coin is then hailed as the "luckiest" individual for the next 364 days by the gathered company.

Now, historically speaking, the baking of coins into breads and cakes which were holy offerings for holiday occasions was not invented by Saint Basil (also known as "Basil the Great") who purportedly lends his name to the Vasilopita -the "Vasil" part. In point of fact, the ancient pre-Christian Greeks and Romans were both familiar with this peculiar patisserie practice and many of their festivals included such tokens and the name likely refers to "Vasil" as 'King' which is the original meaning of the word itself. 

Seventeen centuries ago, Basil was appointed as Christian bishop (in Greek, a 'despot') of a place called Caesarea that is the modern-day city of Kayseri in Turkey. He was a contemporary of the Emperor Julian, who was known as 'the Apostate' for his impracticable mission to resurrect a dying paganism in the Roman Empire. When said Emperor went forth on an ultimately unsuccessful mission to conquer the Sassanid Empire (a persistent revival element of the ancient Persian Empire), his army made his way through the vicinity of Caesarea on their way to Mesopotamia. As wars require financing, he put a special emphasis on squeezing the local provincials with extra tax demands; and he took a special interest in Christian communities.

Basil's regard and care for the poor and underprivileged of Caesarea was legendary and a universally respected trait, one which earned him the devotion and love of his followers, Christian and non-Christian alike. In addition to numerous other works, Basil had commisioned a structure known as the 'Basiliad', a large complex on the outskirts of Caesarea, which included a shelter for the poor along with a hospital. The man himself was renowned for his charity and personal poverty, yet he spared no expense when it came to the care and succour of others, and his ability to provide for their needs drew the attention of Julian's overzealous tax-collectors. So, Bishop Basil was was 'invited' to help fund the Emperor Julian's war effort. Having eschewed personal wealth in providing for his fellows, Basil turned to his followers and friends to raise the money. His followers gave up whatever they could afford to ensure that nothing happened to their beloved bishop and a tidy sum was assembled posthaste.

The Emperor Julian was unsuccessful in his bid to reduce the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon and he was reportedly killed by one of his own men during a skirmish with enemy forces while his army was withdrawing back to the safety of Roman borders. There is speculation that Julian's death was an assassination ordered by Basil, but there is no direct evidence to support such a claim. Suffice it to say, once the Emperor was dead, Basil was no longer under severe constraint to provide money to the failed war effort. This in turn, left him in a quandary as nobody had kept records of who had donated what amount to the sum which had been collected in his name, and he now desired to return the money to his community. Thus, according to the tradition, he fixed on the idea of having equal shares of the money baked into small loaves which he then distributed among them, one for each family. When the loaves were cut, each family discovered a fair share of the total amount that had been originally amassed. It is said that to honour their bishop, his followers continued and passed on the practice of a yearly Vasilopita complete with a lucky coin, and the practice is still perpetuated almost 1700 years later.

In this tradition, no mention is made of the original pagan practice of the King's Cake, where a bean was baked into the cake. This is hardly surprising as many pagan, pre-Christian practices were subsumed within Christianity over the course of its history. Suffice it to say, this custom of the King's Cake is as old as the hills of Rome and will likely continue for ages to come. Happy New Year!

Happy New Year 2009!

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.