Years ago, I worked at a bank in Malden as head of Construction Lending and later as the person overseeing bank owned property management and sales. It was at a time in our country when house prices had tanked, people were upside down on mortgages to an extreme, and developers were going bankrupt and walking away from properties and developments. Great time to buy properties, but not a fun time to be working in foreclosure, rent collection and all that goes along with that.
Traveling with an armed guard
Yes, at one point, as I was out visiting abandoned properties, overseeing repair and showing to prospective buyers, I had someone travel with me who carried a gun. Why? It’s a reasonable question. But it started one day when I refused to provide a developer with a check because the work he was requesting payment for hadn’t been completed. He threatened me over the phone, showed up at my office building, and even asked co-workers where I lived. In any case, my least favorite boss ever decided, thank god, that I needed someone to keep an eye on me. Tada, I was immediately accompanied pretty much everywhere by Jim. A great guy, with I guess big muscles, and a gun. As he walked me to my car in the lot behind our building a few days later, we heard the squealing of tires, and a car drove up over the sidewalk into the lot we were crossing and headed right towards us. Jim shoved me into some low shrubs and jumped, and the car kicked gravel up as it swerved past us and back onto the street, then sped off. After that, I never walked to my car alone, and when I had to go out to show properties, Jim usually came along for the ride.
Dedicated to Jim? No…
You’d think after that story, that I’d dedicate this recipe to Jim. But no, while he did save my life, and was a funny, hardworking guy, who always left the scent of aftershave in a room, this recipe is dedicated to another guy in the office, Lou. He was our in-house appraiser, and adored family and his Greek heritage. I remember on a few holidays we’d have a potluck lunch, and everyone would bring in a favorite dish to share. Lou brought pastitsio, made by his mother, or his grandmother. And he raved about it. After lunch we all agreed, it was quite “rave-worthy.”
Pastitsio in honor of Lou
So a few weeks ago, when I was trying to come up with a recipe that was a bit out of the ordinary, I remembered Lou’s family dish, and how he spoke of it in awe because it took so long to cook. Following is my version, perhaps not traditional, but still very time-consuming and amazingly delicious when complete. This recipe makes a full 18 servings!!! So either cut it in half, before you cook it, or feel free to freeze half. It keeps well and thaws out ready to heat and eat. I cut this one up into serving sizes, bagged each individually, then fit all of them into a large freezer container. We can pull one out whenever we’re in need of warm, filled-with-love food to enjoy and make us feel treasured.
Pastitsio (aka Greek Lasagna, although I also think it’s close to Shepherd’s Pie)
- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef (85% lean)
- 1 1/2 pounds ground sweet Italian sausage (I used actual sausages and emptied the casings)
- 1 TB olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 15-oz cans of tomato sauce
- 1 TB ground cinnamon
- 1 TB fresh orange zest
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 TB fresh chopped greek oregano or 1/2 tsp dried
- 16 oz pasta (mostaccioli, elbows, bow ties, small ziti)
- 8 oz grated kasseri cheese (greek cheese) I used 6 oz and 2 of Italian blend
- 4 eggs (1 of the eggs beaten)
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup flour
- 5 1/2 cups lactaid low fat milk
- This is a make ahead sauce, and takes 3 hours to cook, then time to cool, so best to start in the early evening or even afternoon and allow to sit overnight.
- Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add chopped onions, and a sprinkle of salt and cook until softened.
- Add the ground meat, cooking and stirring, breaking up any lumps of meat until thoroughly cooked with no pink showing.
- Add 2 cans of tomato sauce, cinnamon, orange zest, cumin, nutmeg and oregano, stir and bring to a simmer.
- Season with more salt to taste, cover, and allow to stew for 3 hours. Then let cool, and refrigerate over night.
- In the morning, remove the sauce from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature
- Grate your cheeses and set aside (you should have 4 – 4 1/2 cups total)
- Cook pasta al dente, then rinse in cold water and drain
- When cool enough to handle, place the pasta in a large bowl, and mix in the 1 beaten egg with your hands until all noodles are covered
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray a large pan (lasagna or other good-sized deep pan, 12 x 18 or larger) with cooking spray, or drizzle with olive oil and spread evenly.
- Place all cooked noodles with egg into the pan and spread evenly across the bottom. You’re going to need room to add layers, so if the noodles have filled the pan, you’ll be hearing Chief Brody say, “you’re going to need a bigger dish” (OK, OK so he said boat, but still…)
- Sprinkle about 1/3 of the cheese over the noodles.
- Cover the cheese with all of the meat mixture (less maybe 1/4 cup)
- Sprinkle another 1/3 of the cheese over those three layers (pasta, cheese, meat sauce).
- Make the bechamel sauce (believe me this may be scary but so incredibly good when you finish it!):
- In a heavy large pot, melt 1 stick of butter.
- Add the flour to the butter, whisking well as it cooks. Stir constantly for 1 – 2 minutes, then slowly add 5 cups of milk, continuing to whisk constantly so nothing burns. Cook until it just starts to boil (you’ll see little bubbles around the edge). Remove from the heat.
- In another bowl, beat the remaining 3 eggs and 1/2 cup of milk with a hand mixer. Add eggs slowly to the pot of flour, milk and butter, whisking the entire time.
- Place the pot back on the heat and cook, whisking, until the mixture becomes thick and bubbly. It takes a bit, and you won’t trust it, but don’t give up. Suddenly you’ll have a luscious smooth thick sauce. Once this happens, remove from the heat and allow to sit for a few minutes.
- In a different pan, melt the 1/2 stick of butter and set aside
- Pour bechamel over the meat and cheese layer, spreading evenly with a spatula
- Sprinkle remaining cheese over the top, crumble the remaining bits of meat sauce, and drizzle the melted butter over all.
- Place the pan on top of a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour (I needed someone to help me lift the pan!) until lightly browned on the edges.
- Remove from oven and allow to sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
It’s a lot of instructions and sounds overwhelming at first ready, but it’s amazing. And really, if you make the meat sauce the first day, the second day is just building the dish, and then baking. I was really proud of this recipe and am tempted to add more orange, but for now I’m keeping it as is. I hope you enjoy.
I love researching new flavor combinations, traditional dishes I can make my own, and new cooking techniques, and tying them all up with stories of my past. I also love exploring different places, hiking, visiting new restaurants and discovering new favorite things. If you do, too, maybe you’d like to follow my blog! Why not sign up today and get an email every time I post about a new adventure?
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