Pesto Pastichio

Historically Italy and Greece are intertwined. You almost can’t study one without studying the other. Culinarily some consider Italy and Greece worlds apart from each other; while others (just a few) may consider them related. I think it really just comes down to which kind of pizza you prefer.

However, I say combine the best of both worlds! And that is how I came up with this idea for a fusion of Greek technique with Italian flavors. That and the fact that I had just processed loads of fresh pesto for my freezer; made from the bumper crop of basil in my garden.

Pesto: Everybody probably knows this one even if they don’t eat it often, if at all. Usually it is made from grinding fresh basil, pine nuts, garlic, cheese and olive oil. Toss on pasta, sandwiches and everything in-between.

Pastichio: A luscious, lasagna-like dish made with ground meat, noodles and creamy Bechamel sauce. There is a Greek restaurant up on route 1 that makes the best I have ever had. It is probably 500 calories a bite but it is so worth it!

I love both things so why not combine them. Besides it was kinda chilly the other night with a fall nip to the air and a Monday Night Football double-header on TV. Who could resist a hot dinner with pasta, cheese, meat and garlic. I also had some various things hanging around to use up: a random 1/2 lb of ground beef, a can of mushrooms, some tomatoes harvested before the chilly night set in and some freshly made pesto just dying to be used!

I have never made Pastichio, so I took a look at my cookbook collection and realized that I was lacking in the Greek department! So I turned to the internet for inspiration and was overwhelmed by the millions of variations! It seems that everybody has their own version. Some out there even consider it an Italian dish! Yikes. Could this be the Johnny Marzetti of the Greek household?

As for pesto I make that every year and I have to thank my friend Melissa for showing me how easy it is to just put it all in the Cuisinart and hit the button. I used to be a purchaser of pesto but now I am a maker of pesto! Sometimes I make it with pine nuts and sometimes almonds and the other night I made it with walnuts and the most delicious freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

So here is the fusion!  After I made the bechamel sauce I added the pesto to it.

I thought I was clever and it pretty much turned out delicious. I do need to perfect my Bechamel-making skills, mine turned a bit grainy as I wasn’t patient with my mixing. Also I think the ratio of Pesto could be up’ed for even more flavor impact. Don’t underestimate the amount of salt and pepper to use. Also I left out some of the warm spices from the bechamel sauce that are traditionally used in Greek Pastichio like cinnamon and nutmeg because I thought they would be lost among the pesto; but maybe you would want to try it that way?

Also any kind of veggies you wanted to add would be great – I think cubed zucchini in the browned meat would be spectacular!

Here is how I made it:

1/2 lb ground beef – more if you have it. Ground lamb would be fantastic and traditional!

1 small onion, diced

1 4 oz can mushroom, drained or use fresh!!

1 tablespoon dried oregano

3 small tomatoes diced – just because!

Brown all together with salt and pepper- if meat is very high fat content, brown first and drain some fat off before adding other items. Add tomatoes in last 5 mins to keep their shape. Layer at bottom of casserole pan.

1 box of penne pasta – I used a 13.25 oz box of Dreamfields brand. Boil in salty water as package indicates, drain and layer on top on beef mixture.

Bechamel – you may want to look this one up as I improvised.

2 Xtra large eggs or 3 reg size

2 cups half and half

1 cup milk (we use whole in our house but you could use low-fat I am sure)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter and 4 tablespoons flour for the roux

1/2 cup homemade or store-bought pesto

1/2 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese – save out a couple of tablespoons to sprinkle on top.

Start a traditional roux with the butter and flour. Meanwhile whisk the eggs, milk and half/half together and warm gently in a separate pot. After the roux has “cooked” for a few minutes add milk/egg mix in slowly while whisking. Once totally incorporated, keep whisking over medium temp until it starts to thicken. Add grated cheese, salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly. Add pesto and mix through.  Pour on top of noodle layer.

Layer a couple of thin tomatoes slices along top for taste and decoration. Sprinkle the bit of Parm cheese set aside and maybe a hefty shake of dried oregano.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 mins. Let it cool significantly before cutting and serving as it will be too hot and drippy to serve right away.

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