Again with the Greek food? Apparently, once we try cooking a certain type of food and have some success, we continue to roll with it. Unlike Souvlaki, and Greek-spiced Shrimp, this dish is not one we immediately recognized as Greek cuisine. But once we tasted it, we could easily imagine it as a signature comfort-food recipe handed down through generations of Greek families. But this version, found in Cook’s Illustrated’s “Light & Healthy 2012” magazine, is probably a lot more low in calories and fat than one a grandma likely used to make. Pastitsio is typically made with a beef- or lamb-based meat sauce, pasta, a rich béchamel sauce and cheese. This healthier version replaces the beef/lamb with ground turkey, incorporates a béchamel made with low-fat dairy ingredients and reduces the amount of cheese. Although this recipe is the only version we’ve ever tried, we certainly did not miss any of the more fatty, higher-calorie ingredients in the finished product, which was plenty rich and hearty. Just like (a calorie-conscious, red-meat-abstaining) Grandma used to make.
Although it’s not particularly difficult to make, this recipe requires a lot of ingredients and involves many steps, so it’s best to start by assembling/measuring/preparing as many of the ingredients as possible ahead of time. The ingredients for the meat sauce are: 1 onion (chopped fine), 1 teaspoon olive oil, 2 tablespoons tomato paste, 4 cloves of garlic (minced), 1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (we cut it down to 1/4 teaspoon — not huge fans of cinnamon), 1 pound (93 percent lean) ground turkey, 1/3 cup red wine, 1 (15 ounce) can tomato sauce and salt & pepper. The ingredients for the béchamel sauce are: 1 teaspoon olive oil, 3 cloves of garlic (minced), 2 1/2 cups (2%) low-fat milk, 1 (12 ounce) can low-fat evaporated milk, 3 tablespoons cornstarch, 1 1/4 cups grated Pecorino Romano cheese, 1/3 cup (2%) Greek yogurt and salt & pepper. The recipe also calls for 8 ounces elbow macaroni (use whole wheat pasta to up the healthy ante even more, without sacrificing any of the taste.)
Start with the meat sauce: combine the olive oil, onion, 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large saucepan or skillet, cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions become soft — about 8-10 minutes.
Increase the heat to medium, add the tomato paste, garlic, oregano and cinnamon and cook, uncovered, until the tomato paste begins to darken — 1-2 minutes.
Add the turkey and cook, breaking it up into small pieces, until the turkey begins to brown — about 5 minutes.
Add the wine and cook until the liquid evaporates — about 2-4 minutes. Then add the tomato sauce, bring the mixture to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens — about 6-8 minutes. Set the finished sauce aside off the heat.
Boil the pasta in salted water until almost al dente — about 4-5 minutes. Drain the pasta and rinse it with cold water to cool it, then place the pasta in a large bowl.
Assemble the ingredients for the béchamel: measure out 2 cups of milk; whisk cornstarch into the remaining 1/2 cup milk; grate the Pecorino cheese (easiest to do in a food processor); and measure out the yogurt.
Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a Dutch oven until shimmering, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant — about 30 seconds. (If you are smarter and more efficient in the kitchen than me, you will have already minced this batch of garlic when you minced the other garlic for the meat sauce.)
Add 2 cups of milk and the evaporated milk to the Dutch oven and bring to a simmer, stirring often. Next, add the cornstarch mixture and continue to simmer, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens — about 6 minutes.
Off the heat, add 3/4 cup of the Pecorino cheese and salt and pepper to taste.
Add 1 1/2 cup of the béchamel sauce to the pasta and stir it all together.
Whisk the Greek yogurt into the remaining portion of béchamel sauce.
Transfer the sauced pasta to a 13 x 9 baking dish…
…add the meat sauce…
…then add the remaining béchamel sauce…
…and top with the remaining Pecorino cheese.
Bake the pastitsio in the oven preheated to 375 degrees until golden brown on top — about 30 minutes. Allow the pastitsio to cool for about 10 minutes before cutting into it and serving, so that the layers will set and it will look nicer on the plate.
(I said “nicer,” not perfect.) Served with a green salad, the combination of rich and creamy béchamel and meaty tomato sauce bound together by the warm pasta makes for a uniquely delicious (and still healthy!) comfort-food meal.