Towards the end of last month, Del Monte sent me a pack of Penne Rigate from their Gourmet Pasta line as part of their “Italian Escapades” – Blog Your Way To Italy campaign that’s being conducted in association with IndiBlogger
Del Monte’s Italian Escapades is a promotional campaign inviting Indian food bloggers to submit innovative recipes featuring Del Monte pasta. The main prize is a food blogger’s dream and it’s a 7-day food-centric trip to Italy. We love pasta here, and blogging about food I love is always a great idea. Winning that trip to Italy could only sweeten the deal some more. If only wishes were NOT horses, we could all ride!
“Pasta with melted cheese is the one thing I could eat over and over again.” _~ Yotam Ottolenghi.
It was Del Monte’s Penne Rigate is slightly thinner than the average Penne that’s available in the stores around here and that prompted me to revisit the idea of making a vegetarian version of Pastitsio. Yotam Ottolenghi got it right and I could eat Pastitsio again and again. What’s not to like about layers of pasta blanketed in a delightfully spiced cauliflower ragu and covered with a creamy layer of white velvety sauce flavoured with nutmeg and just the right amount of cheese?
Greek and pasta? Shouldn’t that be Italian? Well, not really. Some people believe that pasta was never Italian in origin but actually from China, though this has been disproved by historians. It is the Arabs who are credited with bringing pasta to Italy and the Mediterranean during their invasions into Sicily as far back as the 9th century. Pastitsio may be known as a Greek dish but it has its origins in the Italian Pasticcio which is a baked savoury pie and the layering is much like the Lasagna except that the Pastitsio uses tubular pasta instead of pasta sheets of the Lasagna.
Pastitsio (pronounced as pa-STEE-tsee-oh) though a pasta dish is not Italian at all. It is a Greek baked pasta casserole, somewhat similar to the Italian Lasagna, layered with pasta, minced meat cooked with tomatoes and spices and topped with a white sauce and cheese. You could probably think of it as a Greek version of the Italian Lasagna.
It’s apparently a much loved comfort food in Greek homes and is also served in tavernas throughout the country. It’s so popular that I understand you’ll find a recipe for it in every Greek cookbook! Pastitsio is also usually cooked and served in particular on the Sunday before Lent in Greece, as one of the many meat dishes served before the period of fasting begins.
The name “Pastitsio” derives from the Italian “Pasticcio” (also sometimes called Lasagne al Forno which means oven baked Lasagna), whereas the flat sheet pasta used to make Lasagna actually has its origins in ancient Greece!
There are variations when it comes to making Pastitsio though one constant is the use of tubular pasta as the bottom most layer. Pastitsio can be made without meat and only with vegetables, with a ragù (meat with sauce) and Béchamel topping, without the Béchamel but an egg based custard, with a topping of Riccotta cheese, etc. In fact, one can find versions of Pastitsio not just within Greece but throughout the Mediterranean. So in Cyprus it is Macaronia Tou Fournou, in Egypt it is Macaroni Béchamel, Timpana in Malta and Fırında Makarna in Turkey.
Generally, there are three layers to Pastitsio though some people would just mix up the bottom two layers to form a single layer. Others like to layer the pasta twice, once at the bottom and then again in the middle and how one does does come down to personal preferences.
The bottom most layer is generally a tubular pasta called “Bucatini” to which a mixture of cream and egg is added as a binder. One can substitute Ziti or Penne for Bucatini. The pasta is usually arranged lengthwise so that when the Pastitsio is cut for serving, the cross section of the pasta layer has a lovely pattern of “holes”
The second layer is a usually ground meat and sauce with tomatoes and spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves or allspice depending on which region the recipe comes from. This is topped with another layer of pasta by some while others go straight away to the white sauce.
The topmost layer is a thick creamy nutmeg flavoured Béchamel sauce or a Mornay sauce (Béchamel sauce with cheese, usually Greek cheese like Graviera or Myzithra or Kefalotyri in this case) and more of the cheese is grated and sprinkled on top of the white sauce layer before the Pastitsio is baked.
What do you do when you live in a part of the world where you cannot find all the ingredients to make a quintessential Greek dish? You make the best of what you have using ingredients that have flavours and textures that are reasonably close to the original, or else at least flavours that work together.
So I did some research, and put together a recipe for Pastitsio that is not authentic by any reach though I did to try to stick to the spirit of the dish. It has the typical elements of a Patitsio (pasta, red sauce, and white sauce), and it is good! Obviously, my Pastitsio is vegetarian, and I chose to use cauliflower and some green peas. Then I decided to completely leave eggs out. Del Monte’s Penne Rigate worked perfectly instead of Bucatini.
Greek cheese was obviously out of question, and from what I’ve seen Parmesan seemed to be a reasonably good substitution. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have any on hand and my local stores also seemed to have run out of it. I couldn’t even find any Cheddar, and the only cheese on the shelf that I thought might work well was Gruyere so that’s what I used in my Pastitsio. In case you’re wondering, both Kodai Diary and Nilgiri brands make a good variety of vegetarian cheeses in India.
I also added a bit of lime zest to the Mornay sauce because it adds a nice flavour to it. I used allspice and oregano in my Ragu but you can use can use a spice/ spices of your preference like rosemary or cinnamon or a combination of any two. Use a light hand with the spices, as it is the nutmeg which should be the stronger note in Pastitsio (not too strong please)
The recipe for Pastitsio may look complicated but it is quite easy and doesn’t take all that much time. All you have to do is make a Vegetable Ragu, a Mornay sauce, boil the pasta all of which shouldn’t take more than an hour at the most. Then layer them in a baking dish and let it bake for about 45 to 60 minutes, during which time you can put your feet up and enjoy a cup of tea.
You can even make this ahead to serve later. Pastitsio can be served warm from the oven, or even the next day when the flavours come through better. Refrigerate leftovers and just warm it up in the oven before serving. It can be served on its own or with a light salad on the side.
Some Tips on making this Pastitsio –
1.Use Bucatini pasta (long tubular pasta) if you can find it or Ziti, otherwise any other short thick tubular pasta works well here. I particularly liked the Del Monte Penne Rigate to make Pastitsio (I’m not saying this because this post features it) because it is a bit thinner than the average Penne available in the stores here.
2. You could use other vegetables that would go well pasta or even cooked lentils or chickpeas instead of vegetables.
3. If you can find Greek cheese, that’s the best naturally. Otherwise Parmesan or Pecorino are good substitutes. Also remember to use a harder cheese that will melt while baking and grate it really fine to aid the melting.
This Vegetarian Pastitsio recipe was created for the Del Monte: “Italian Escapades” -Blog your way to Italy contest. You can find Del Monte on Facebook too
This recipe was selected as a finalist in the Del Monte competition, cooked by Chef Ranvir Brar and won a prize. Please see the video for Chef Brar cooking my Pastitsio.