Michael Psilakis: Pastitsio

from How to Roast a Lamb, pp. 212-213.

Back in the old days, Greek women had arms like lumberjacks. Or so I gather. Michael Psilakis’s new book reminds me of how hard it is to make thin phyllo dough by hand, how much muscle you need to make a Greek béchamel. You needed a lot more brawn than the homemade pasta and the labor intensive polenta Italian women used to make from scratch.

I am blessed with five Greek brothers-in-law and nephews. My late sister married a Greek and I was married to a Greek. One of my Greek former brothers-in-law is in the country. We had not seen each other since my 50th birthday party in Paris five years ago. After a camping trip to Yosemite with his partner, they drove north to have dinner at my house. Call me foolish, but I decided to make a traditional Greek dish.

Pastitsio is to Greek cooking what lasagna is to Italian and steak-and-kidney pie is to British cooking. It’s in the stodgy category. When done well, it still sits like a lump in your stomach. Nevertheless, I decided to give the Psilakis version a try. I have made only one other recipe from the book. His spanakopita is a little too creative. I fed it to a crowd of people who adored the flavors, but I felt it looked like a mess.

This recipe worked very well. The béchamel custard set properly. I worried that it would make it gooey, but that was not a problem in the least. The cinnamon-nutmeg flavors in the meat sauce worked beautifully with the custard. Pastitsio could almost be a dessert — but not quite.

As for ingredients, thanks to Mediterranean Market here, I found everything I needed, from the Misko Macaroni to the Cretan graviera cheese. If you haven’t investigated the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern groceries in your area, here’s a reason to do so. Start hunting.

If you have time, make the meat sauce the day before.

First, the béchamel sauce, which has the corollary benefit of building muscle:

5 ounces unsalted butter

10 ounces all-purpose flour

1 1/2 quarts whole milk, warm

2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Large pinch nutmeg, preferably freshly ground

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Cracked black pepper

5 large eggs, lightly beaten

In a large, heavy pot, melt the butter over low heat, whisking with a large balloon whisk. Add the flour and whisk to a very crumbly roux, not a smooth paste.

Shadowcook: Think of pie dough before you add the water.

Whisk constantly and energetically for about 5 minutes to cook off the raw flour taste, but do not allow to brown (slide the pot off and on the heat every now and then if you sense it is getting too hot).

Shadowcook: By the time you incorporate all the flour, you will start thinking about switching to a wooden spoon. Hold on as long as you can with the whisk. It’s a pain, but keep clearing the middle of the whisk wires of dough that’s stuck there. I found tapping it on the bottom of the pan worked.

Still whisking constantly, drizzle in the warm milk until smooth.

Shadowcook: That is very important. Do not rush incorporating the milk into the roux. If you try to whisk in too much at once, the sauce will be lumpy. At this point, your arm is going to feel the strain, because unlike other béchamel recipes, this one starts out thick as concrete and winds up still thick but thin enough to stir without cramping your arm. Just be patient.

Continue cooking, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep the mixture at a very low simmer, until very thick.

Shadowcook: Ha. Right now you’ll be thinking, is he crazy? Does he pump iron?

Whisk in the cinnamon, nutmeg, kosher salt to taste, and a generous amount of pepper.

Shadowcook: This is the moment to get the seasoning right. Taste it. And don’t undersalt it.

Scoop out about 1/4 cup of the warm sauce. In a bowl, whisk the sauce into the eggs to temper them. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk all the egg mixture back into the béchamel.

Shadowcook: Tempering the eggs is a good trick to learn. It’s a great way to incorporate egg yolk into hot liquids without the yolks forming bits. Avgolemono soup (Egg Lemon Soup), a divinely delicious soup, is made velvety through this technique. Eggs are needed here to make the custard consistency.

Ok, now back to the Pastitsio:

3 tablespoons blended oil (90% canola, 10% extra-virgin olive)

1 large Spanish or sweet onion, finely chopped

3 fresh bay leaves or 6 dried leaves

2 cinnamon sticks

2 pounds ground beef

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Pinch ground nutmeg (optional)

Pinch ground cloves (optional)

1/4 cup tomato paste

2 1/4 quarts water

1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes, crushed slightly, with all the juices

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon sugar

Kosher salt and cracked black pepper

1 (500-gram) package Misko Macaroni Pastitsio no. 2

1 3/4 quarts Greek Béchamel Sauce [above] with eggs

1 cup coarsely grated graviera cheese

Shadowcook: If you can’t find the Misko Macaroni, try using perciatelli or bucatini, any long pasta with a hole in the middle. If you can’t find graviera, use Pecorino Romano.

Make the kima sauce: in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and wilt the onion with the bay leaves and cinnamon sticks for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the ground beef and brown thoroughly. Add all the spices and the tomato paste and stir for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the water, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt, and a generous grinding of pepper. Bring to a boil.

Shadowcook: I made the kima the day before. It saved a lot of time and distributed the work more efficiently over two days.

Reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer for 65 to 75 minutes. Skim off the fat once or twice.

Shadowcook: If you make it the day before, scraping off the fat is easy.

Reduce until the sauce is almost completely dry. Proceed with the recipe, or cool and refrigerate.

Preheat the oven to 350. In a large pot of generously salted boiling water, cook the macaroni until almost tender, a minute or so before the al dente stage. Drain well. Spread 1 cup of the Greek Béchamel Sauce [above] on the bottom of a deep roasting pan or lasagna pan [or 13×9 pyrex dish], and sprinkle with 1/3 cup graviera.

Lay half the noodles out on top of the bechamel. You should have 2 to 3 layers of noodles. Spread another cup of the béchamel over the noodles, without disturbing the direction of the noodles, to bind them. Scatter with 1/3 cup of the graviera. Spoon all of the kima sauce over the top and smooth flat. Spread 1 more cup of the béchamel over the kima sauce, scatter with 1/3 cup graviera.

Layer remaining pasta noodles over the béchamel. Spoon on the remaining béchamel and scatter with the remaining 1/3 cup of graviera. Bake uncovered until crusty, golden, about set, about 1 hour.

If you don’t have a convection oven, you may want to increase the heat to 400 F at the end, to brown the top.

Shadowcook: I increased the heat to 400 F and you see the result.

Cool for at least 40 minutes, to allow the custard to set so that the squares will remain intact when you cut them. Or, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate overnight.

Judith Jones: A Small Meatloaf with a French Accent

From The Pleasures of Cooking for One, pp. 58-59.

Judith Jones is my kind of cookbook writer: a sensible, good writer who takes seriously those home cooks, like herself, who live alone. Her recipes do not equate cooking for one with simple preparation. That’s what I like about her, but that’s also what might put some people off. Jones assumes that cooks who live alone are as apt to plan their meals ahead as are cooks with partners or families. The recipes in this slim volume suit the kind of cook who anticipates her meals with pleasure a day or so in advance.

I try to eat meat no more than twice a week. In this case, as you may notice when you look closely at the photo, I doubled the recipe so that I could have three even four meals. I froze half of it, but will be sure to eat it within a month.

Start the meatloaf a day before you plan to eat it:

1/3 pound ground beef

1/3 pound ground pork

1/3 pound ground veal

Shadowcook: I can no longer bring myself to buy veal. Instead, I divide the meat evenly between beef and pork.

2 plump garlic cloves

1 teaspoon salt, or more as needed

2 shallots, or 1 small onion

4 or 5 sprigs fresh parsley, preferably flat-leaved

1 teaspoon dried porcini (no soaking needed)

Shadowcook: No soaking needed more or less true, but I would increase the dried porcini not quite by half and shred or crumble into small pieces.

1/4 teaspoon herbes de Provence

Shadowcook: I used fresh herbs. Herbes de Provence strikes me as very old-fashioned, because I rarely use dried herbs. But maybe there’s reason.

1/4 cup red or white wine

Shadowcook: Try the white wine.

Freshly ground pepper

1/2 bay leaf

1 strip bacon

Vegetable accompaniments

Olive oil


2 new potatoes, cut in eighths lengthwise

2 young carrots, peeled

1 young parsnip, peeled and cut in half lengthwise, or another root vegetable similarly prepared

The night before you’re planning to have a meatloaf dinner, put the meats in a bowl. Smash the garlic cloves, peel and chop them fine, then, with the flat of your chef’s knife, mash them into a paste with 1/4 teaspoon of the salt. Chop the shallots and parsley, and crumble the porcini. Add all these seasonings to the meats, along with the herbes de Provance, the wine, several grindings of your pepper mill, and the remaining salt. Mix thoroughly with your hands, squishing the meat with your fingers. When thoroughly mixed, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let macerate for 24 hours in the refrigerator.

Shadowcook: Just do as she says. However, the smell of meat and wine clung to my hands for hours no matter how hard I scrubbed them. Rubber gloves?

The next day, remove the meat from the fridge and pull off a tiny piece. Cook it quickly in a small skillet, then taste it to see if it needs more seasoning. If so, add whatever is needed.

Shadowcook: Great idea. I didn’t do it, but it’s a great idea. This is the sort of direction that shows how Jones assumes the person cooking for herself takes food preparation seriously.

Form the meat into a small loaf. Break the bay leaf into three pieces, and arrange them on top of the loaf; then lay the bacon strip, also cut in thirds, on top. Transfer the loaf to a medium baking pan. Rub a little olive oil and salt over the vegetables you want as an accompaniment, and distribute them around the meatloaf. Bake in a preheated 350 oven for 45-50 minutes, turning the vegetables once.

Everything is done when the meat looks lightly browned, the bacon a bit crisp, and the veggies tender (the internal temperature of the loaf should be about 150 degrees). Let rest for at least 5 minutes, then cut three or more slices, and arrange on a warm plate, with the vegetable surrounding the meat and the juice poured over.

Shadowcook: Another example of how essential a meat thermometer is to successful cooking.

Second round: Leftover meatloaf is good cold — but not overly chilled. Eaten with a dab of Dijon mustard, little cornichons, and a glass of red wine, it will taste almost like a French country paté.

Mary Karlin’s Grilled Flank Steak with Red Peppers and Fontine Cheese



from Wood-Fired Cooking, pp. 54-55.

My new SoJoe fire pit arrived last week and I was dying to take it out for a spin. Although it came with a rotisserie set that I’m dying to use, I decided instead to grill a stuffed flank steak in the new cookbook I bought to inaugurate the fire pit. I’ve spotted close to ten recipes in it that I want to try. The one I present here struck me as the easiest and most spectacular one in the book. It certainly was good.

I have by no means given up on my Weber kettle grill. A project in the near future will involve using the 6 fire bricks I recently acquired to insulate the kettle so that I can do a slow wood-grill in it.

For the moment, I’m focusing on building a fire and roasting a flank steak:

Serves 6 as a main course

1 (1 1/2 – 2 lb) flank steak

Shadowcook: Make that definitely a two-pounder.

Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper.

Gremolata stuffing:

1 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup julienned fresh basil

6 cloves garlic, blanched and minced

Shadowcook: I take her point that blanching garlic removes the bitterness, but I’m not sure I want to. Anyway, I didn’t.

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1/3 cup bread crumbs or panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons olive oil, for moistening

For the remainder of the recipe:

2 red bell peppers, roasted and peeled

Shadowcook: Two would not have been enough to adequately cover the surface of my butterflied flank steak. I chargrilled four peppers on my gas grill, slipped off the burnt skins, and opened them flat.

2 cups packed spinach leaves

8 ounces Italian fontina or Monterey Jack cheese, thinly sliced

Olive oil, for brushing

Wood-Roasted Red Pepper Wine Sauce (page 191, for which you’ll have to buy the book)

Prepare a hot fire (475 degrees to 500 F) in a wood-fired oven or grill

Shadowcook: I started a fire by filling a charcoal chimney with hardwood brickettes. When the coals were blazing hot and red, I dumped them in the fire pit on one side. Then I laid four medium oak logs over the coals and let them catch fire. It didn’t take as long as I thought: 15-20 mins for the chimney coals, another 10-15 mins for the logs to catch fire from the coals.

Now, I don’t know why she begins with the making of the fire and then proceeds to stuffing the flank steak. I stuffed the flank steak and then made the fire. Prepare the meat ahead of time.

Butterfly the steak by slicing through it horizontally (with the grain), cutting almost through, leaving halves attached by 1/2 inch. Open and flatten the cut meat and lightly season with salt and pepper. Pound the steak to create a fairly even thickness. Set aside.

Shadowcook: Unless you’re skilled with a very sharp carving knife, ask a butcher to butterfly the flank steak for you. My butchers are really good and even they couldn’t prevent a thin section from becoming a seam that tore open in the meat. I watched the butcher butterflied it: long slices, one at a time, running the length of the steak until he had nearly reached the other side. And have him pound it. Why not?

To make the gremolata stuffing, combine all the ingredients in a bowl. Set aside, reserving 3 tablespoons for garnish.

Cut the roasted peppers into 4 large slabs. Lay the spinach leaves over the opened steak. Line with cheese slices, then the red pepper slabs. Sprinkle with the gremolata stuffing. Roll up the steak tightly lengthwise. Tied the rolled steak with kitchen string about every 3 inches. Brush with olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Shadowcook: It should be obvious, but make sure to roll up the steak against the grain. In other words, the grain should run horizontally, not vertically, laying on the counter in front of you. Because of the tears in the steak, I tied the roll six or seven times. Less than 3 inches separated the strings, which made for easy carving into servings. Season LIBERALLY. Remember, if you’re using Diamond Crystal kosher salt, it has less than the salinity of regular salt.

Place the meat on a grate in the oven or on the grill and turn to brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Move off direct heat and continue cooking for 20 to 25 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 120 to 130 degrees F. Transfer to a carving board, tent loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes, or until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center registers 130 to 135 degrees F. Cut into 1/2-inch-thick rounds, sprinkle with the reserved gremolata, and serve with the wine sauce.

Shadowcook: Since it’s an open grill, I didn’t move it far from the direct heat. As the meat contracted and shrank, the cheese and peppers oozed out of both ends and through the small holes in the meat. It looked a delicious mess. For most of the grill, the temperature remained low enough to worry me that I would dry the meat out before it reached the recommended degree. But then, something happened about 20 minutes into the longer grilling and it shot up to 130. I took it right off and let it sit under foil.

To tell you the truth, I was forced to let it rest for longer than was good for it. I tasted it about ten minutes after. Succulent. But I had no choice except to wait to servie it. When it arrived at table room temperature, it was good but not as good as it would have been twenty minutes earlier. Be sure your guests are lined up and ready to eat after it’s rested. The cheese needs to be hot and a bit runny and the peppers warm. The beef at the center will still be pink.

At any rate, it made a hell of a visual impression on everyone at the table. And tasted pretty good.