The idea is to take that month's classic dish, technique or ingredient and transform it into something new. The classic Greek dish, pastitio, is February's inspiration. Pastitio is traditionally made of layers of pasta (ziti) layered with a rich meat sauce of lamb (sometimes beef) that is spiced with cinnamon and allspice. A thick layer of bechamel (think a white sauce with eggs whisked in) is poured over the top and the dish baked to heat it through and cook the bechamel. It's not hard to make (although it's time consuming) and I've made it many times (using the recipe my mom gave me once upon a time).
The problem with pastitio is that it's pretty rich and I wanted to think of a way to lighten it up for a weeknight dinner. I decided to go vegetarian (sorta) and substitute mushrooms for the meat. To make it even lighter I made a veloute (made with broth) instead of a white sauce (made with milk). I did use a little milk in the veloute for creaminess, but the broth was the primary liquid. Instead of ziti, I used ditalini pasta for a daintier match with the mushrooms.
We were very happy with the outcome: the dish was very satisfying but didn't weigh us down. Since it wasn't super-rich I can safely include it in my weeknight meal rotation.
I used chicken broth to make the veloute. Sub in vegetable broth for a vegetarian dish. Sub in all milk for a creamier bechamel sauce.
Also, instead of sauteing my mushrooms in a skillet, I roasted them in a hot oven. This method is great for a hands-off cooking. See the before and after pictures of the mushrooms to get an idea of how much "shrinkage" there is when you cook mushrooms down.
Finally, there are a lots of steps, but you can make the components ahead of time and assemble the dish before cooking.
- 1 pound small tube pasta: ditalini, pennette, mini ziti, etc.
- 24 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
- 1 onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
- 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 3 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1 cup milk
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan, romano or mizithra cheese
- salt and pepper
Cook the pasta in a lot of salted, boiling water until just shy of done (you want the pasta to be a little undercooked because it will cook through a little more in the oven). Drain and set aside.
Make the mushroom sauce:
Heat the oven to 400. Spread the mushrooms on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast the mushrooms in a hot oven, stirring occasionally, until they are browned and all the moisture in the pan has evaporated. They will shrink a lot - look at the before (left) and after (left) for an idea about how much the volume will decrease.
While the mushrooms are cooking, saute the onion with a little olive oil in a large skillet until softened and starting to brown. Add the garlic and spices and saute a few more minutes, until fragrant. Pour in the can of tomatoes. Keep stirring until mixture gets "saucy" (the water from the tomatoes will cook off and the mixture will look like something you'd want to sauce pasta with - a good idea BTW). Set sauce aside until the mushrooms have finished cooking. Add mushrooms to sauce. Taste for salt and pepper. Stir in parsley. Set aside.
Over medium heat melt butter in a large saucepan and add flour. Stir in flour and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon until smooth. Whisk in 1 cup of the broth. Whisk until smooth (the mixture will get very thick). Gradually whisk in the remainder of the broth and the milk. Whisk until there are no lumps. Bring to a simmer. As the sauce starts to bubble it will thicken up. After simmering for 5-7 minutes, the sauce will be thick (about the texture of melting ice cream). Remove sauce from the heat. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasoning as needed.
Crack the eggs into a bowl and whisk them to break them up. Whisking rapidly, whisk the eggs into the sauce. The sauce will thicken up a little more.
Assemble the pastitio:
In a large baking dish (9x12ish), layer the ingredients as follows:
- Enough bechamel sauce to cover the bottom of the pan.
- A layer of pasta (about half the pasta).
- The mushroom sauce.
- The rest of the pasta (you may not use all of it - don't mound the pasta too high over the top of the baking pan - use leftovers in a frittata).
- Slowly pour the bechamel over the top - use a spoon to move the pasta back and forth so the sauce seeps in between the pasta.
- Sprinkle the cheese over the top.
Let the pastitio sit for 5 minutes or so before serving.