kitchen firsts: lamb (or beef) pastitsio
Well, it’s been two weeks since the start of my preschool year, and my new routine seems to have thrown me off my blog-game just a lil bit. Please don’t check how long it’s been since my last post. The ironic thing is that we have kept up with the cooking and photographing and kitchen firsts over the last few weeks (in fact, we’ve been cooking a lot!), I’ve just let them lay dormant in the camera for far too long. But no more! With this post, I am hoping to jump back in to the swing of things. I’m positive that wrangling preschoolers, cooking, and blogging can co-exist!
Anyways, here’s a kitchen first I’ve been hanging on to for a little bit. Pastitsio turned out to be one of those multi-first meals, in that I’ve never had pastitsio before, we worked with lamb for the first time, and I grated fresh nutmeg for the first time (don’t ask me why I’ve never done this before– silly, huh?). Now that we’ve tried it, it seems to me that pastitsio is sort of like a fancy-fied, Greek-style hamburger helper (dare I call it lamb-burger helper?), but in a good way. Whatever you call it, pasta + cheese + tomatoey cream sauce + ground meat = one tasty homey meal, and all I can say is if actual hamburger helper was this satisfying I would be picking up some boxes and adding it to my dinner repertoire. This is definitely a good meal to warm you up on an autumn night.
As a young adult, the texture, appearance, and even the taste of ground lamb would not have offended me at all, but the idea of eating lamb was not something I was on board with. Cute baby lambs? No way! But now that I’ve come around a bit on being open about meat, I don’t have a problem with eating lamb as long as I’m confident that I’m buying good quality, responsible meat. I’ve eaten lamb in restaurants before but never cooked with any sort of lamb at home, so this was a fun chance to do so and to experiment with a Greek recipe. We found that the lamb contributes a meaty savoriness to the dish that I really enjoyed, although the dish would be great with ground beef as well. The spices really complement the flavor of the meat and give the dish warmth without being spicy.
Another great thing about this recipe is that it’s easy on your budget. Don’t be thrown by the long-looking recipe list– most of it is spices and cooking liquid for the pasta and meat. The recipe was supposed to serve two, but we found that it easily served four since it’s so hearty and filling, which means that you can fill up four bellies (or one dinner and one lunch for two bellies) with nothing more than half pound of meat (1/8 lb of meat per person, and everyone’s full!). The rest of the dish is almost entirely pantry staples, so you’re coming in at a very reasonable price for dinner. The recipe comes together in under an hour, and it’s really satisfying. If you want to give the pastitsio a nice golden brown crust, you can place the finished dish in the oven under the broiler and give it a couple minutes of crisping, or you can simply dish it out and serve without the broiler step. Either way, this dish will give you that nostalgic sense of homestyle cooking– a simple take on meat and pasta with a Greek flair, and not a box to be seen.
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen’s Cooking for Two: 2010
1/2 lb ground lamb or beef
2/3 cup minced onion
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 T tomato paste
1/2 tsp dried oregano
dash of red pepper flakes
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup water
1/2 cup milk, half-n-half, or cream (depending on what you have and your decadence-preference)
salt and freshly ground pepper
1/3 lb pasta (1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni, or 1 2/3 cups small shells, or 1 1/3 cups penne)
1 tsp cornstarch
3/4 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
In a large skillet, cook the lamb over medium heat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, until it is just browned and the fat has rendered, about 5 minutes. Remove the lamb to a plate or bowl with a slotted spoon, reserving a little slick of a tablespoon or two or fat in the bottom of the skillet and discarding the rest.
Return the pan with the lamb drippings to the burner on medium, and when it’s heated add the onion, cinnamon and nutmeg. Cook until the onion has softened, about 5 minutes. Then stir in the garlic, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, and oregano, and cook until fragrant, about a minute.
Add the broth, water, salt, pepper, and 1/4 cup of the milk (or half-n-half or cream) to the skillet, then return the lamb to the pan and add the dry pasta. Increase the heat and bring everything to a boil, stirring frequently, then reduce the heat to medium, to maintain a vigorous simmer, and let cook until the pasta is al dente (probably about 7-10 minutes, depending on your pasta). Meanwhile, whisk the remaining 1/4 cup of milk (or half n half, or cream) and the cornstarch together in a small bowl.
If you plan to brown the top, preheat the broiler. When the pasta is al dente, stir the milk and cornstarch mixture into the skillet and continue to simmer until the sauce thickens slightly, just a minute or two. Off the heat, stir in half of the cheese and season to taste with salt and pepper. If you’re skipping the broiler, simply divide the pastitsio among serving bowls, sprinkle with the remaining cheese, and serve. If you’re using the broiler, sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the pastitsio and pop the skillet under the broiler until the cheese melts and browns, about 3-5 minutes, before serving.