I’d be terribly hard-pressed if I had to choose a favorite international cuisine. I appreciate and enjoy almost all good, wholesome food. And thankfully, today we have an abundance of globally inspired flavors and nutritional benefits at our disposal, so we’re free to experiment and introduce our taste buds to new foods quite easily. Every region of the planet contributes their own delicious specialties, and it’s just too hard choosing one among them.
However, Greek cuisine is up there in my top three.
The Greeks harmoniously marry the warm, summer flavors from the southern Italian region of the Mediterranean with the bold, fragrant influence of middle eastern and Turkish cuisine. Add in the briny olives and feta cheese made from tangy sheep’s milk, and I’m in heaven.
One of the most widely known offerings from the country is pastitsio—a baked pasta dish rich with ground meat, tomatoes, and warming spices, topped with a blissfully indulgent cheese sauce. Think mac ’n cheese meets lasagna meets moussaka, and you’ve got pastitsio.
Because I don’t eat a whole lot of pasta, and for me it’s the least exciting part of this dish, I decided to embark on a quest to transform traditional pastitsio into something more protein-rich. My final result went well beyond my expectations and satisfied me to the core on a chilly night. The thick meat ragu is hearty and fragrant with spices, and the hot, cheesy sauce accents it beautifully. The whole dish is decadent but didn’t leave me feeling heavy.
There’s an unresolved rivalry between those who think traditional pastitsio is made with lamb or beef. I’ve had it both ways, and though I can’t say which I enjoy more, lamb might be a tad more customary. Each version brings its own flavor profile and unique health benefits to the table.
Accompany this dish with a crisp Greek or tossed salad. And if you need a little something more filling, serve it atop rice or orzo pasta. For a more traditional take, combine the meat mixture with cooked penne or macaroni, top with the sauce, and bake until bubbly. Some crusty bread or garlic toast to scoop up the savory goodness would also be more than welcome.
Creamy Greek Meat and Tomato Casserole
Serves approximately 6
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1–1½ hours
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 lbs. ground lamb or beef
4 cloves garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons cinnamon
½ teaspoon allspice
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
2 bay leaves
½ teaspoon dry oregano
½ cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (28-oz) can whole tomatoes with juice, squeezed or roughly chopped
Salt and pepper
For the béchamel sauce:
6 tablespoons butter
7½ tablespoons einkorn flour or other flour of choice
3 cups milk
3 egg yolks
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
¾ cups Kefalotyri cheese or grated Parmesan cheese
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Have ready a large (about 2 quarts) casserole dish.
- Add olive oil to a pan set over medium heat. Add lamb or beef and onions. Brown about 10–15 minutes, until meat is fully cooked (keep the meat in larger chunks rather than break it up too much). Add garlic, spices, bay leaf, and oregano. Sauté 1–2 minutes.
- Add wine and tomato paste to meat mixture. Bring to a boil and cook until liquid is reduced by about half.
- Add tomatoes with juice. Simmer approximately 15 minutes, until flavors blend and mixture dries out a little. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Meanwhile, prepare béchamel sauce: Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed pot. Add flour and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly stir in milk, whisking constantly to eliminate lumps. Simmer sauce, whisking frequently, until it’s thick and no longer tastes of flour, about 5–7 minutes. Temper egg yolks by whisking in some of the simmering sauce. Return egg mixture to sauce and heat through. Add nutmeg, salt, pepper, and ¾ of the cheese (reserve remaining ¼ for the top). Stir until cheese is melted.
- When ready to bake, spoon meat-tomato mixture into casserole dish. Top with sauce and sprinkle with remaining cheese.
- At this point, the casserole may be set aside to cool and refrigerated for future baking (add an additional 15–25 minutes or so if baking straight from the refrigerator). If cooking immediately, bake until bubbly and browned, about 20–30 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Image from Briana Goodall.