It's been a long, homely winter and we've been cooking a lot of comfort food, including a couple of tempeh lasagne trays to deliver to friends. It got me thinking about other pasta bakes, and after some internet browsing I got particularly into the idea of trying pastitsio. From there I had a resource much better than the internet - my friend Natalie enthusiastically shared her family's recipe for this Greek dish, including the adaptations her vegetarian mum has been making for decades.
Pastitsio starts with a layer of tubular pasta, seasoned with feta. The pasta is topped with a tomato and beef mince sauce, then covered with bechamel sauce and cheese. The easiest way to make this dish vegetarian is simply to use mock beef mince - Natalie's mum has been known to do this, and I was also happy to make a rare purchase of one of those mince packs that made a big splash in the supermarket meat fridges a year or two ago. With eggs, butter, two kinds of cheese and almost a litre of milk involved, veganising pastitsio is a tougher ask but there are recipes out there and it's only getting easier, the way mock dairy options are proliferating.
While I'm very pleased with my first attempt, I've got some tweaks to make. I straight-up forgot to buy an onion this time around, and also overlooked the bit where you grease your baking tray. The rigatoni I bought were probably a bit too big; I'm interested to find out if there are better options at Mediterranean Wholesalers. Finally, the baking tray I used wasn't quite high-walled enough to achieve the distinct three layers and I've a different one I can try.
We're currently living in hope of warmer days and loosening lockdown conditions, so I might not get back to it this winter. It'll be good news if I don't, but a comfort for days if we remain housebound.
Pastitsio / παστίτσιο
(based on a recipe from My Greek Dish,
with lots of helpful advice from my friend Natalie)
400g tubular pasta, e.g. penne (my rigatoni was a bit too big)
2 egg whites
1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
800g mock beef mince (I used 2 x 400g boxes of Naturli')
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
400g can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1 whole clove
salt and pepper, to taste
100g Kefalotyri or parmesan, grated
pinch of nutmeg
salt, to taste
2 egg yolks
Start by preparing the 'meat' sauce. Pour the olive oil into a very large frypan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring, until softened. Add the garlic, tomato paste and mock mince. Use a wooden spoon to break up the mince, then continue to cook and stir for about 5 minutes. Pour over the red wine vinegar and chopped tomatoes, stirring everything together. Stir through the sugar, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, clove, salt and pepper. Bring everything to the boil, then pop the lid on and simmer the sauce for 20-30 minutes, until most of the liquid is evaporated. Remove the bay leaf, cinnamon stick and clove (if you can find them all!). Set the meat sauce aside.
Next, prepare the bechamel. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter is completely melted, whisk in the flour. Add the milk to this flour paste, no more than a cup at a time, whisking almost constantly to maintain a smooth sauce. Bring it just up to the boil so that the sauce thickens, stirring all the way, and then turn off the heat. Stir in half of the grated cheese, then the nutmeg and some salt. Whisk in the eggs, going quickly to ensure they don't cook and separate from the sauce. Set the bechamel sauce and the remaining grated cheese aside.
Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling water, for 2-3 minutes less than directed on the packet. Drain the pasta and crumble in the feta cheese, then whisk through the egg white to evenly coat the pasta.
Preheat an oven to 180°C.
Lightly grease a large high-walled baking tray with oil. Spread all of the pasta mixture across the base of the baking tray. Spoon over all of the meat sauce across the top of the pasta, aiming for even coverage. Pour the bechamel over the mock-meat layer as evenly as you can. Sprinkle over the remaining grated cheese. Bake for around 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown. Allow the pastitsio to rest for 20 minutes before slicing and serving.