I love lasagne. To be more specific, I love my Mum’s lasagne. There’s something about your own Mother’s cooking that is just so comforting and I don’t know what it is about her lasagne, but it can’t be beaten. We even had it as my ‘last supper’ before I got married a few months ago-that’s how much I love it!!
As the post isn’t about lasagne, you may be wondering where I’m going with this. It will become clear! Well, I first had pastitsio on holiday in Kefalonia a couple of years ago with my now hubby. I didn’t really know what it was when I ordered it, but this huge slab of pasta and mince with white sauce was put in front of me. Basically a Greek version of lasagne (told you it would become clear!). It looked quite heavy and definitely stodgy, but it was surprisingly light and I polished it off in no time. Delicious. We were sitting in a bustling square in the centre of Argostoli in Kefalonia. It was full of little restaurants and whilst it was a bit of a tourist trap, it was still lovely. On our way to the square, we walked along the main pedestrianised shopping street on paving stones as shiny as mirrors. It was like walking on a marble floor inside a really posh house. You could almost see your own reflection in them.
The hubby was nursing a bit of sun burn after our first day on the beach (kiwis should know better!) so he wasn’t on top form, but we still had a lovely night. We both loved Greece – it was such a friendly place and the food was delicious (decent sized portions too which is always a winner in the hubby’s book!)
I found it pretty hard making a decision on what Greek dish to make as there are so many yummy options to choose from. The Greek spinach and feta filo pie (Spanakopita) was a close second, particularly as it reminded me of the lovely hotel we stayed in near Fiscardo (Agnantia Hotel Apartments). I wouldn’t normally name hotels, but I did enjoy this one. We had the most lovely breakfasts there. It was a family run hotel and on top of the every day staples of Greek honey (from local bees), Greek yoghurt, breads, biscuits, cheeses, cakes, fruits etc they always had a freshly made ‘surprise’ dish for breakfast, one of which was the feta and spinach pie – it was the perfect way to start the day. The one downside of sitting outside in their lovely terrace for breakfast, amongst the flowers, listening to the clinking of goat bells, was the wasps. They were really annoying, buzzing around our food, but the hotel owners used little burners that created lots of smoke that kept them away (at least a little bit). I loved that hotel – we had a four poster bed and as the hotel was quite high up, we could see for miles across the bay from our balcony. The sunsets were particularly amazing. The only other downside was that it was too far to walk to Fiscardo, a lovely fishing town with a beautiful harbour and loads of fab restaurants, so we did have to drive to go out for food in the evening. You could have walked to Foki bay (the closest beach – stony rather than sandy), but it was a good 30 mins downhill, so quite a bit longer on the way back (we didn’t ever walk it), but it was still a lovely place to stay. Part of the charm I guess was that it was slightly further from the main touristy areas, so you really did feel like you were getting away from it all.
Anyway, back to the food. As I said, I do love lasagne and here’s my attempt at the Greek’s version of it. It comes a very very close second to my Mother’s lasagne, not quite beating it, but it does give it a run for its money. Don’t let her know I said that!
This recipe comes from Rick Stein, and I played around with it a little bit, so it’s not exactly to his recipe, but near enough.
Rick Stein’s Pastitsio
for the meat sauce:
- 4 tbsp olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 2 celery sticks, finely chopped
- 1kg lean minced beef
- 200ml red wine
- 400g can chopped tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato purée
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¼ tsp ground cloves
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 2 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped (I didn’t have any, so just added a bit more dried)
- 3 fresh bay leaves
- 100ml water
- 1½ tsp salt
- freshly ground black pepper
for the pasta:
- 8 tsp salt
- 500g/1lb 2oz tubular pasta, such as rigatoni or penne
- 2 free-range eggs, lightly beaten
- 50g greek kefalotiri cheese, finely grated (I used parmesan)
- 10g fresh breadcrumbs (I didn’t bother with these, but it would give a more crunchy topping)
for the white sauce:
- 115g butter
- 115g plain flour
- 1.2 litres (2 pints) milk, plus a little extra
- ½ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
For the meat sauce:
Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized pan, add the onion, garlic and celery and fry until just beginning to brown. Add the minced beef and fry over a high heat for 3-4 minutes, breaking up any lumps with a wooden spoon as it browns.
Add the red wine, tomatoes, tomato purée, cinnamon stick, ground cloves, dried and fresh oregano, bay leaves, water, salt and freshly ground black pepper and simmer for 30-40 minutes, stirring now and then, until the sauce has thickened but is still nicely moist. Remove from the heat and discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaves.
For the pasta:
Add pasta to a large saucepan of boiling, salted water. Cook until al dente (a few mins less that the cooking time on the packet). Make sure you don’t overcook it as it will continue to cook in the oven. Drain well, transfer to a large bowl and leave to cool slightly.
For the white sauce:
Melt the butter in a medium-sized non-stick saucepan, add the flour and cook, stirring, over a medium heat, for one minute. Gradually beat in the milk, then bring to the boil, stirring. Lower the heat and leave to simmer for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with the nutmeg and some salt and pepper to taste. NB: Everyone has their own way of making white sauce. I’m just copying this from Rick Stein’s recipe, but I didn’t follow his method.
Preheat the oven to 180c. Stir 250ml (about one-third) of the white sauce into the warm pasta with the beaten eggs and half the grated cheese. The egg gives it more of a richness, but also helps stick the pasta together when you’re assembling it. Keep the remaining sauce warm over a low heat, stirring now and then and adding more milk if it begins to get a little thick.
Grease a large, shallow ovenproof dish with butter, that measures about 23cm x 33cm (9in x 13in) across and 7cm (2½in) deep. Here’s where I changed the recipe slightly. Rick suggests splitting pasta in three, with the bottom two layers being covered in meat and the top layer in white sauce. I decided to go with the way I’d seen it look in lots of photos, as follows: Spread half the pasta over the base of the dish (I was really anal and lined up all the pasta so when it was served it looked really cool, but you really don’t need to do this!) Cover with all the meat sauce. Then cover with the remaining pasta. Spoon over the white sauce. Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese over the top (and breadcrumbs if using). Bake for 40 minutes until bubbling hot and golden brown.
Serve with a green salad, crusty bread and a gutsy red wine.