I do all of the cooking in my house; my wife amazing at baking, but she's just totally lost when it comes to cooking. But given my commute, it's hard to start making a nice dinner when I get home, and have it done in time to be able to eat, and have some time with my kids before they go to bed. So I like to make large dishes on the weekend, so that we've got a couple of days during the week when we just need to heat something up. So casseroles are a great thing.
Unfortunately, I don't know a lot of casseroles. So a few weekends ago, I tried something new: pasticcio. Pasticcio is sort of like greek lasagna; it's layers of pasta alternated with a meat sauce, and topped with béchamel sauce. I've had pasticcio in lots of Greek restaurants, but I never tried making it myself. It turned out really good.
The big secret to it is spices: in my experience, the difference between a really good pasticcio, and a bland boring one is the spices in the meat. The flavor of the good ones comes largely from a very nice middle-eastern spice blend called "ras el hanout". Ras el hanout can be a bit hard to find, but it's worth the trouble of searching for. It's got a lot of ingredients, and the exact combination is very individual. So you want to either find a recipe and make your own blend, or else find someplace that makes a good one. It's typically got things like cloves, cinammon, cardamom, mace, paprica, black pepper, and dried rosebuds(!). I've found a ras that I really like from the spice house.
- Meat Sauce:
- 2 lbs ground beef.
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ras el hanout.
- 1 minced onion.
- 2 large cloves garlic, minced.
- 2 teaspoons salt.
- 1 can diced tomatoes.
- 1/2 teaspoon oregano.
- 1/4 cup dry sherry.
- 2 egg whites.
- 1/4 cup butter.
- 1/3 cup flour.
- 2 cups milk.
- 2 eggs + 2 egg yolks.
- 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.
- 1 teaspoon salt.
- 1 1/2 lbs pasta.
- 1 tablespoon butter.
- 1 pinch salt.
- Cook the pasta. (to be authentic, it should be long hollow noodles - like uncut penne; I just used penne). When its done, toss it with just enough butter to stop it from sticking together, and a pinch of salt.
- On high heat, brown the meat. While it's cooking, add most of the salt, and half the ras el hanout.
- Remove the meat from the pan. Deglaze with the sherry, and dump the liquid into the meat.
- Add some olive oil to the pan on medium heat.
- Add the onions and the garlic, and sautee them until they're translucent.
- Add the meat back to the pan.
- Add the can of tomatoes, any remaining sherry, the remaining ras el hanout, and the oregano. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool.
- When it's cooled a little bit, mix in the egg whites. It should be cooled enough that the eggs don't just cook when they hit the meat. They're there to act as a binder, to get the meat to hold together in the casserole, so you don't want them to bind until the casserole is cooked.
- Melt the butter on medium heat. When it's all melted, add the flour, and cook until the flour starts to turn golden. Then add the milk and salt. Cook it until it thickens - it should turn very thick.
- Once it's thickened, remove it from the heat, and add in the grated cheese and the eggs, and mix thoroughly.
- In a rectangular casserole, put half of the pasta on the bottom of the pan. Cover it with half of the meat. Then add the other half of the pasta, and the remaining meat.
- Spoon the bechamel sauce over the top of the casserole, to form an even layer.
- Cover lightly with foil, and bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
- Remove the foil cover, and bake for another 20 minutes, until the bechamel on top starts to brown.