It’s a good thing I like this dish, because we made a huge pan of it last Sunday and I’m still eating it for lunch. We probably should have invited about eight people over to dinner when we first made it, although I’m not quite tired of it yet. It’s awfully good.
Pastitsio, if you haven’t heard of it, is the Greek answer to lasagna. Details differ, but the basic formula is hollow pasta (preferably bucatini, which we can’t get, but other shapes work) layered with spiced tomato meat sauce and an egg-enriched white sauce which forms a custardy topping. The textures are fabulous, creamy and chewy all at once, and the cool custard complements the meaty tomato flavors. It’s a bit of work to put together, but well worth the effort if you have a long Sunday afternoon to spare. And now that autumn is here and standing over a hot stove is actually a pleasant activity, why not?
This is an awesome lasagna. I’m not kidding, it’s really, really good. Unless you don’t like mushrooms, of course, in which case I can’t help you. This is all about the mushrooms. And the cheese.
I got the idea for this lasagna from a recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but I embellished it a bit with extra cheese and a generous amount of sausage, because I tend to feel that sausage makes everything better. One technique of hers that I think is really key here is adding the porcini soaking liquid to the bechamel. It gives the creamy sauce an earthy perfume that I find irresistible.
Unlike my husband, I did not grow up with kugel. I may have heard of it, but I can’t even swear to that. I finally tasted it at a gathering in Kansas City sometime after I married into the family, but wasn’t quite sure what I thought. For him, though, it’s a major flavor from his childhood – one of those atavistic pleasures.
For those not in the know, a kugel is a traditional Jewish dish. Baked casserole-style, it’s a carb- and fat-bomb usually made from egg noodles, cottage cheese, butter and sugar, with any number of additional ingredients, including but certainly not limited to: sultanas, cherry pie filling, apple pie filling, corn flakes, apricots, nuts, carrots, pineapple…you name it. Despite being quite sweet in most of its incarnations, it’s often served as a side dish with meat. The sweet-savory blend is reminiscent of old Middle Ages recipes, and it’s surprisingly addictive.
I recently made kugel myself for the very first time, and the first thing I did was consult the family recipe books. Jon’s mother used to make kugel, but we didn’t have her recipe. We did have Jon’s grandmother’s recipe, which inexplicably leaves out the noodles (her brisket recipe leaves out the brisket, so go figure). There was also a “chiffon” kugel recipe that used beaten egg whites to lighten the custard. In the end, I committed familial heresy and used a recipe from the food blog Smitten Kitchen. I did, however, cut it in half to avoid eating kugel for a solid month. And I left out any and all fruit that might have tried to creep in.
Our freezer has gotten very low on emergency lunches, so it was clearly time to make a lasagna. Few things are as comforting on a cold day as being able to pull a container of lasagna out of the freezer, nuke it, pour a glass of wine, and have a hot, cheesy satisfying lunch. And to make that happen, of course, we have to have lasagna for dinner first. Oh, the sacrifices we make.
I make lasagna pretty much exactly the way my parents did when I was a kid (it was my favorite), except for the addition of no-boil lasagna noodles, which are God’s gift to casserole makers. Sometimes I’ll do a variation with pesto and white sauce, and I often add fresh spinach, but this particular one was just the basics: red sauce with meat and mushrooms, ricotta, mozzarella and noodles. End of recipe. I do not add egg, or cottage cheese – I feel very strongly about these things. That grainy ricotta texture is important here.
Oh – to go with our lasagna, we threw together a spontaneous salad of mixed spinach and lettuce greens and shaved fennel, with a lemon-mayonnaise dressing. It was FANTASTIC. If I ever figure out how I did it I’ll write the recipe down. Wow.
Now, back to the lasagna:
So you may recall that last week there was a dish specifically designed to use up beet greens, but the beets themselves never made an appearance. Here they are! I deeply regret not taking a picture of them while they were fresh and intact, because they were beautiful – but you’ll just have to cope with pictures of the finished product, a gratin of beets, potatoes, and cheese. The beets were from Blue Heron Farm, and the potatoes from Frog’s Song Farm. The cheese was from the supermarket (sorry, the local cheesemaker doesn’t do Gruyère-style).
This is based on an actual recipe from one of our old standbys, the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. It calls for specific quantities and measurements, of course, but I never have the exact amounts of anything so I end up just tossing stuff in however. The key is adding plenty of cheese and cream.