One day, a friend asked me to make dinner over their place.
The friend wanted something super easy: Greek pastitsio and salad.
I walked into their house and got right into the kitchen. They chatted with me while I heated a skillet and diced onions. They talked to me while I made a roux, browned meat and boiled water.
They watched me walk over to the oven and turn the temperature dial. A few minutes later, while I was beating milk into a roux, they informed me that the oven didn’t work.
I totally wanted to yell. But I stayed calm. Shot them a smile that probably didn’t reach my eyes. And kept on cooking.
Because here’s the thing about being a professional cook: You just figure it out.
For the Beef:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil or cooking spray to coat pan
1 cup sweet onion, diced very small
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground beef (I almost always use 80/20)
¼ cup dry white wine
1 cup no salt added tomato puree
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley or to taste
2 teaspoons cinnamon or to taste
1 teaspoon dried thyme or to taste
salt and black pepper to taste
Heat oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Add onions to hot oil and cook until translucent. Add the garlic and cook just until the garlic gets soft. Push the onions and garlic to one side of the pan or remove them to another plate.
Put the meat in the pan and brown it. Flip it over and scrape the seared meat off the top while the bottom browns. Repeat this until the meat is broken up. Break the meat up further and cook all the way through. Once the meat is cooked, take everything out of the pan and drain off the drippings.
Put the pan back on high heat. Pour the wine into the pan and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the wine until it is almost gone.
Add the meat back. Add the tomato puree and the seasonings. Cook until the tomato puree becomes a tight sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Bring a pot of water to boil to cook one pound of tube-shape pasta according to package directions.
For the Bechamel:
1 cup 2% or whole milk (measure and leave on the counter to warm up while you cook the meat)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
½ sweet onion
1 small bay leaf
Salt and black pepper to taste
Ground nutmeg to taste
Make a roux by melting the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Once the butter is melted add the flour. Stir the mixture with a wooden spoon for about two or three minutes. Do not let it get dark. Remove the pan from the burner if it starts to burn.
Beat the milk into the roux with a whisk. Beat constantly while you pour the milk in a steady stream. Make sure there are no lumps.
Stick the bay leaf to the ½ onion with the clove and place it in the milk. Or just toss all three in there and make sure to strain them out before serving.
Cook over medium heat for ten minutes. Do not let it boil. Stir frequently. If you feel something stuck to the bottom of the pan, don’t try to scrape it up. If it feels like a lot, transfer the sauce to a new pan.
Taste after ten minutes. If it tastes like flour, cook longer and try again. When it no longer tastes like flour, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.
To assemble the dish:
Toss the hot, cooked pasta with some butter and season it with salt and pepper. Layer the bottom of a casserole or individual dishes with the pasta.
Spread a layer of the hot beef mixture over the pasta.
Pour some of the bechamel on top.
Now, you’re supposed to bake pastitsio, but I couldn’t. It bugged the crap out of me that it wouldn’t have that awesome browned topping. So I improvised. I found some matzo meal and sauteed it until brown in a bit of butter and shaved some domestic Romano over the top of the dish.
If you have an oven (and it works) just pop the dish under the broiler until the top is browned and bubbly.
Have you ever had a kitchen malfunction? Did you get through it?
Is it still pastitsio if it’s not baked? (I say it’s not, but my friend thinks it is.)