Escape to Kefalonia
I know it seems strange to speak of beautiful Mediterranean islands just a few days away from Christmas, but it’s easy to long for escape when you’re in a busy home full of relatives. Gifts have to be wrapped (or still bought), cleaning has to be done, and many mouths need to be fed.
So before we get into how to feed those relatives, let’s take a little trip.
Along the northwestern border of mainland Greece sit the Ionian Islands. They are unique from the other islands of Greece in how much of their culture is a mixed influence of Greek and Italian flavors. Kefalonia has held a special spot mainly for its history as the potential location of Homeric Ithaca, the home of the mythological Odysseus.
For me personally, it’s the land of my family’s origin. The small village of Havriata would seem like any tiny village to most, except for the time my family visited, and noticed how everyone had our last name.
More than legends and family ties, the Ionian region is an interesting melding of Greek and Italian cultures and flavors. You’ll see it in the quiet lifestyle of the residents, the wine, and especially the food. No dish ever more represents this than the tradition known as Pastitio (“pahs-teech-eyo”).
When you first look at it, your mind might think “lasagna”, and while there are similarities in shape and color, the flavor still has a hint of the Turkish influences that ruled Greece for decades. It’s origin can be traced to the Italian pasticcio, a similar series of baked pasta pies. It’s layer upon layer of macaroni, meat, cheese, and topped with a creamy béchamel.
Whether you’re jetting to Greece or stuck at home needing a hearty meal for a visiting family, you can’t go wrong with pastitio. Here’s how it’s done:
For the Meat Sauce:
- Olive oil
- 1 1/2 lbs of ground beef
- 1 Spanish onion, chopped
- 4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 jar (24 oz) of spaghetti sauce
- 1/2 cup of red wine
- 1-2 tbsp of cinnamon
- Salt and pepper to taste
For the Béchamel:
- 2 sticks of butter
- 1/4 cup of flour
- 1/2 gallon of milk
- 2 eggs
- 4 tsp of nutmeg
- 2 tbsp of salt
- Pepper to taste
For the Rest:
- 1-2 cups of breadcrumbs
- 1 lb of #2 thick macaroni or penne, cooked
- 1 lb of kefalograviera cheese, shredded
Making the Meat Sauce:
- Pre-heat oven to 350º
- In a stock pot, heat up 2-3 tbsp of the olive oil on medium heat.
- Place the ground beef into the oil and cook until redness disappears
- Add in the Spanish onion and garlic. Cook until onion softens.
- Pour in the spaghetti sauce and red wine.
- Stir in the cinnamon and season with salt and pepper.
- Lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Making the Béchamel:
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter on medium-low heat.
- Using a wire whisk, add in the flour and continuously stir until a light roux forms.
- Add in the milk and keep stirring until the sauce thickens.
- Remove the thicker sauce from the heat and add in the eggs, nutmeg, and salt.
- Continue whisking the mixture until the egg and seasonings are fully integrated.
Assembling the Pastitio:
- In a baking pan or dish, pour in a generous amount of olive oil.
- Sprinkle the breadcrumbs on top of the oil to form a bottom crust.
- Lay half of the pasta on top of the crumbs.
- Add on 2/3 of the kefalograviera cheese all over the pasta.
- Place your meat sauce on top of the cheese and pasta.
- Lay the other half of the pasta on top of the meat.
- Pour the béchamel on top of it all, allowing it to seep into everything.
- Finish with the last of the kefalograviera cheese on top.
- Bake your assembled pastitio in the oven for 45-60 minutes.
When you cook the meat in the pot, you’re simply trying to brown it a little. We don’t need it fully cooked (the later baking will do that), but just partially done.
Using a jar of spaghetti sauce is just easier. A basic tomato spaghetti sauce or one with basil will do nicely. You’re welcome to make your own if you wish to go totally homemade.
When making a béchamel, watch your heat and continue stirring through the heating process. You don’t want to burn it, just heat it up and thicken it. Your goal should be like a thick gravy. If you do slightly burn it a little, it’s ok, but you won’t have that nice, light-colored topping.
If your pan is very big and you think the pasta won’t be enough, then make twice as much and go with it. I suggest cooking the pasta first and testing how much you’ll have in the pan.
If you can’t obtain kefalograviera cheese, then try a grated pecorino toscano, pecorino romano, or parmesan. Just any kind of dry salty cheese with Mediterranean origins.
Healthy It Up
There are many spots where you could healthy up this dish. You can use lean ground beef, or even go with ground turkey if you’re avoiding red meat. Granted it’s not traditional, but it’s not a big deal. I’d suggest though adding in some beef stock powder to give the final sauce that beefy flavor.
The béchamel is a bigger spot to lighten things up. While the traditional version calls for whole milk and butter, I’ll use skim milk and olive oil. Use 3/4 of a cup of olive oil if you want to substitute. You can also use 1/2 cup of Egg Beaters (or similar product) in place of the eggs. You might not end up with as thick of a topping, but it will still taste wonderful.
The pasta is subject to some variation as well. If you cannot obtain #2 macaroni, then try penne. You can also use whole wheat pasta, or even go gluten free. You can also go gluten-free with the flour and breadcrumbs if you wish.