Pastitsio

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My introduction to Greek cuisine began with the set of cookbooks that introduced me to many International cuisines – the Time-Life series of cookbooks called “Foods of the World.” Included in the set are beautifully photographed hardback books describing the cuisines and cultures, as well as smaller, spiral-bound recipe books.

The set was gifted to me by mother, because she owned and loved hers. They were also my first cookbooks, so as I learned how to cook, I also learned about various cuisines. Had I known better, I might have been intimidated, but I just jumped in and started cooking.

One week I’d make meals from the Ethiopian cookbook, the next week Japan, the next Italy, and so forth. One of the cookbooks was “Middle Eastern Cooking,” which included foods from Greece as well as Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and other countries from that part of the world.

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Over the years I made moussaka, chicken baked in red sauce with cinnamon, grilled pork kabobs smothered in oregano, and many more lovely recipes. But one that I really loved was Pastitsio. To me it was way more fun than moussaka.

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When I first made it, my husband loved it. But over the 30-plus years that I’ve been cooking, he’s somehow decided that he hates lamb. It’s just not the same with beef, so I’m using a 50-50 mixture. Who knows, in a future post, I might be writing from my own apartment…

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Pastitsio

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons salt
1 pound ziti
7 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 1/2 pound lean ground lamb
2 cups chopped, drained, canned tomatoes
1 cup canned tomato purée
1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon oregano crumbled
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Black pepper
1/2 cup soft, fresh bread crumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup grated Kefalotiri or Parmesan

In a large pot bring 6-8 quarts of water and 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil over high heat and drop in the ziti. Stirring occasionally, cook the pasta for 10-15 minutes, or until soft but still somewhat resistant to the bite. Immediately drain the pasta and set aside.
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Meanwhile, prepare the lamb and the cream sauce. In a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet, heat 6 tablespoons of the olive oil over moderate heat until a light haze forms above it. Add the onions and, stirring frequently, cook for 5 minutes, or until they are soft and transparent but not brown.

Add the lamb and, mashing it frequently with the back of spoon or fork to break up any lumps, cook until all traces of pink disappear.


Stir in the tomatoes, purée, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, the remaining 2 teaspoons of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Bring to a gentle boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to low, cover tightly and simmer for 15 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, stir in 1/4 cup of the bread crumbs, the beaten egg, and set aside.


Sauce:
4 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
6 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour

To make the cream sauce, combine 3 cups of milk and the butter in a small pan until bubbles appear around the rim of the pan. Remove from the heat. In a heavy 2- to 3- quart saucepan, beat the eggs with a whisk until they are frothy.

Add the remaining 1 cup of milk and 1 teaspoon of salt and, beating constantly, add the flour, a tablespoon at a time.


Stirring constantly, slowly pour in the heated milk and butter mixture in a thin stream and, still stirring, bring to a boil over moderate heat. Continue to boil until the sauce is thick and smooth; set aside.


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. With a pastry brush coat the bottom and sides of a 9 x 15 x 2 1/2″ baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle the bottom with the remaining 1/4 cup of bread crumbs and spread half of the reserved pasta on top.


Cover with the meat, smoothing it into the corners with a spatula.
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Then pour 2 cups of the cream sauce evenly on top. Sprinkle with half the grated cheese.
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Make another layer with the remaining ziti, pour over it the rest of the cream sauce, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.


Bake in the middle of the oven for 45 minutes, or until the top is a delicate golden brown.

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If you love moussaka, you’ll definitely love pastitsio. It’s the love red meat sauce, slightly sweetened with cinnamon, layered on noodles, and topped with a rich, cheesy cream sauce that makes it the ultimate in comfort food, Greek style!
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Gorgonzola Sauce

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This post should really be entitled “Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce,” but since I didn’t make the gnocchi myself, I’m just making this post about the sauce. Which, if you love any form of good blue cheese, you will love. I promise.

This Italian-inspired sauce is pretty rich, but you don’t make much of it by following this recipe. A little goes a long way.

The flavor profile is lovely, with the combination of the blue cheese, a little bit of bacon, and everything topped off with toasted pine nuts.

Keep in mind that if you don’t love blue cheese, any cheese can be substituted. Goat cheese would be incredible in this sauce. And you can always omit the bacon, although that would be a shame.

Gnocchi with Gorgonzola Sauce

4 slices, about 4 ounces, bacon, diced
1 teaspoon oil
2 small shallots, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
2/3 cup cream of choice – I used evaporated milk
Crumbled blue cheese*, about 4 ounces or less if desired
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1 – 16 ounce package fresh gnocchi – these are actually mini gnocchi

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Toasted pine nuts

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add the diced bacon and the oil; I used olive oil.
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Turn the skillet’s heat down to medium, and cook the bacon until mostly all done. You’re not going for crispy bacon, you’re just cooking it and rendering some fat in the process. Add the shallots and garlic.

(If you prefer to sauté the shallots and garlic in olive oil and omit the bacon step, you can always throw in some prosciutto at the end, before sprinkling the gnocchi with pine nuts.)

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Cook them for about a minute, then pour in the cream or milk you have chosen to use in the sauce.
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Keep the heat at about medium, and cook the cream mixture for at least 5 minutes at a nice simmer.
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After the liquid has reduced a little, stir in the blue cheese crumbles.
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Give them a gentle stir, then remove the skillet from the heat.

Cook the gnocchi according to package directions. Mine suggested a cooking time of 1 – 2 minutes. I stopped cooking at 1 minute, because I want the gnocchi to absorb the sauce. If necessary, more cream or milk can be added if necessary.

See how beautiful these gnocchi are? They really hold their shape.
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After cooking, drain the gnocchi well.
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Then add the drained gnocchi to the prepared sauce.
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Give everything a gentle stir, and then set the skillet aside. Have your toasted pine nuts handy.

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Just before serving, heat the gnocchi through. Add a little more liquid if necessary, if the gnocchi have absorbed a significant amount of the sauce.
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If desired, sprinkle the gnocchi with the toasted pine nuts. The crunch is delicious with the soft gnocchi.

note: This package of mini gnocchi, which I highly recommend if you don’t make your own gnocchi, makes 4 servings as side dishes, or two generous servings as entrées. I served the gnocchi along with steak and broccoli for dinner, but they would be just as fabulous as a vegetarian meal served along side a green or tomato salad.
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* I happened to have some leftover Gorgonzola on hand from Christmas, but any good Stilton or a Cambazola would work just as well. If you’re not fond of a strong blue cheese flavor, you can cut it in half with a mild cheese like a Fontina, a Chèvre, or even some cream cheese.

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