This recipe was born out of laziness and limited time. I really love the baked Greek casserole called pastitsio (pah-STEET-see-oh). If you are not familiar with it, it is a dish consisting of pasta, ground lamb or beef, tomatoes, seasonings(including cinnamon and mint) and topped with Bechamel, a basic French white sauce made by stirring milk into a butter-flour roux. It is assembled and then baked to bubbly goodness in the oven. This is total comfort food for me.
One evening with a barrel full of fresh mint in my garden I decided I was really hungry for this Greek favorite of mine. What I was quick to realize was that I had neither the patience nor the time to make the dish and wait for it to bake. This dilemma inspired me to make a shortened version fashioned after an Italian Bolognese or ragu sauce. I skipped the bechamel and the baking process so it cut the time considerably. The dish was lighter but equally satisfying leaning heavily on the wonderful combination of the rich cinnamon and bright mint, often forgotten in the preparation of savory dishes. I have since made this many times and it is always a favorite of kids and adults alike.
A word about the ingredients. I subscribe to the philosophy that great ingredients make a great end product. It’s the garbage in, garbage out sort of thing. I always say, buy the best ingredients you can find and afford. In the case of this dish , don’t skimp on the quality of the cinnamon as it is a prominent flavor and deserves attention. I prefer to use a robust cinnamon such as the Vietnamese, Extra Fancy, available through www.penzys.com ,but any full-bodied one will suffice. Just make sure it is fresh (reference my post, “The Life of Spice”) In addition, I believe fresh mint is essential. The lackluster flavor of the dried just doesn’t cut it here. For the pasta, I chose a fun corkscrew shape called cavatappi but any tube pasta such as penne would work.
Prepare for a treat, the recipe goes like this.
Recipe Serves 4
2 T extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, medium dice
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 lb. lean ground lamb or beef (turkey would work as well)
1/2 c dry red wine
1 c beef broth
3 T tomato paste
2 t cinnamon, ground, or more to taste
2 T fresh mint, stemmed and chopped, more to taste
Sea salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
1/2 lb. cavatappi or any tubular pasta such as, penne or elbow
- Heat the oil in a large heavy bottom skillet.
- Add the onion and cook over medium heat until soft. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute or so until the garlic is cooked but not browned.
- Increase heat and add the meat. Cook until browned.
- With a slotted spoon, remove the meat and vegetables from the skillet and place in a bowl lined with paper towel. This is an important step to avoid having the meat too fatty tasting.
- Drain any remaining fat from the pan.
- Add meat mixture back into the pan and add the wine. Cook over high heat for 1 minute or until it is nearly evaporated.
- Add the stock, tomato paste, 3/4 of the mint, cinnamon, salt and pepper.
- Reduce the heat and simmer 15-20 minutes or until the sauce is reduced and thickened. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more cinnamon and mint if desired.
- Meanwhile cook the pasta to al dente in heavily salted water. Drain, reserving a cup of the pasta water.
- Add the pasta to the sauce add in the remainder of the mint (fresh herbs retain more of their vibrancy when added at the end) and toss until fully incorporated. Add a little pasta water to thin if necessary. Sauce should be thick and cling to the pasta.
Serve with a fresh Greek style salad and you have a delightful and satisfying meal.
Once this finds its way to your dinner table I feel confident it will become a staple. Quick and easy, packed full of flavor and a nice departure from an Italian seasoned pasta. If you are squeamish about lamb, don’t forget you can substitute beef or turkey, but I can’t imagine why you would.
Sometimes the best things come from weak moments. This recipe is one of them. Let me hear your reactions!