My husband and I played hookie from church yesterday, not for a sleep-in (those days are a distant memory courtesy of 2-year-old Mr. Dumpling), but to read the Sunday New York Times and clean house. Both activites were long overdue, the former reduced to scattered few pages each weekend and the latter nearly forgotten save for the everyday duties of dishes, bed-making and such.
Both felt darn good.
And in the process of scrubbing, raking, and vacuuming, I had more time than usual to contemplate what I really wanted for dinner. It didn't take long to reach a decision: a rich, lusty casserole.
Many people, of course, have less than pleasant memories of casseroles. Limp noodles, mysterious lumps and bumps, equally enigmatic sauces, and plenty of startling orange goo, melted to resemble Cheddar cheese.
I have endured many such assemblages in multiple settings and circumstances, but never in my childhood home. That's because my mother had a thing for great casseroles. She turned out Americana classics, International superstars, and plenty more vegetable & legume-packed 1970s amalgamtions that were downright delicious. All were loaded with equal measures of great taste, good health, and frugality--isn't that what a casserole is (should be) about?
It certainly can be, and it certainly is here in my rendition of pastitsio, a lusty Greek casserole loaded with pasta and lamb (or beef), scented with cinnamon and oregano, and gilded with a Parmesan-nutmeg becahamel. Here's to you, Mom!
The following is a variation on the pastitsio recipe that first appeared in the Martha Stewart publication Everday Food (worth every penny of the subscription price--terrific, quick ideas throughout). I made the original last February and loved it. But given it was loaded with fat and calories, this time around I gave it my Enlightened spin. It is every bit as good (dare I say better? I do dare.) as the original. Here's what I changed:
(1) Whole grain penne in place of plain semolina penne.
(2) Lean ground beef instead of ground lamb.
(3) Marinara sauce, and more of it, in place of tomato paste (the fat from the lamb made up most of the moisture in the original, but I found it more greasy than moist, and lacking in flavor).
(4) More cinnamon (the orginal had a measly 1/2 teaspoon, for pete's sake!) Some dried oregano, too, to up the Greek-ness.
(5) My much lighter version of bechamel, with an added pinch of nutmeg.
Enlightened Pastitsio (Greek Pasta Comfort Casserole)
This makes a HUGE casserole. The original (Martha's recipe) says it makes 8 servings, but I think that must be for teenage boys who play 3 different sports; 1/10 of the casserole is still an enormous piece. It freezes very well, too; cut into individual portions and freeze in heavy duty quart-size freezer bags for quick lunches and future dinners.
1 pound multigrain penne (I used Barilla plus)
2 pounds lean ground beef (*see note below for vegetarian options)
2 medium onions, chopped
1/2 cup red wine
1 and 1/3 cups good-quality marinara sauce
1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 and 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Lighter Parmesan Bechamel:
3 cups low-fat milk (I used 1%)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cook pasta in a large pot of salted water for 3 minutes fewer than specified on box (~8 minutes). Drain; set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, over medium heat, cook ground beef, breaking apart pieces with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink. Add onions; cook and stir 5 minutes longer. Transfer to a colander; drain fat, and discard. Return beef to pan; add wine. Cook over medium heat until almost all liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
Stir in marinara sauce, cinnamon, oregano, salt, and 2 cups water; simmer 15 minutes , stirring occasionally, until thickened. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To prepare topping, place milk in a 4-cup glass measure. Microwave at HIGH 3 minutes or until hot, stirring after 2 minutes. Melt butter in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add flour, stirring with a whisk, and cook 1 minute or until bubbly, stirring constantly. Gradually add milk, stirring constantly with a whisk. Bring to a simmer; cook over low heat 8 minutes or until sauce slightly thickens, stirring frequently. Remove from heat, and stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in Parmesan.
Add pasta to beef mixture; transfer to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Pour sauce over the top, smoothing with the back of a spoon until level. Bake until browned in spots, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven; let cool 15 minutes before serving. Makes 10 generous servings.
Vegetarian Option: 2 cups lentils can be cooked (about 4 cups cooked) until tender and then used in place of the ground beef.
Nutrition per serving (1/10 of casserole):
Calories 403; Fat 8.9g (poly 0.9g, mono 2.7g, sat 4.1g); Protein 27.8g; Cholesterol 97mg; Carbohydrate 58g; Sodium 690mg; Fiber 4.9g)
(Note: I did the nutrition analysis using Diet Analysis Plus 7.0.1)