Growing up, Greek food was, well Greek to me. I'm not sure why. My grandfather's stepfather was Greek, and his half-sister - my great-aunt - was Greek Orthodox. I remember going to the Greek festival at her church. But except for baklava, I have no memory of being exposed to Greek food growing up in Middletown.
Then again, I was a finicky kid, so if I'd ever been offered spanakopita as a child, I would have said, ''Ew, spinach,'' and run in the other direction. And the 10-year-old me never would have eaten anything with lamb as long as a hamburger or meatloaf could be found in the city limits.
If I ever had a gyro growing up, I'm sure I called it a ''jai-row,'' not a ''ye-row.''
Pastitsio pairs well with a crusty bread and a salad. This recipe makes enough to feed a family with leftovers to spare.
My discovery of Greek food came after my arrival in the Mahoning Valley, ordering a side of gyro meat with the breakfast special at John and Alex Vlahos' restaurant that used to be on Courthouse Square when I started at the Tribune Chronicle in the mid-'80s. That was the first place I had spanakopita, pastitsio and moussaka.
I still get my spanakopita fix from Mocha House, count down the days to St. Demetrios Grecian Festival every July and have sought out Greek restaurants when on vacation in different cities.
But I don't really cook Greek food at home, unless heating up a frozen spanakopita from Trader Joe's counts.
For the meat sauce:
3 tablespoons good olive oil
1 1/2 cups chopped yellow onion (1 large)
2 pounds lean ground lamb or one pound each of lamb and lean ground beef
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 large cloves)
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes in puree
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the bechamel:
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan or Kasseri cheese
2 extra-large eggs, beaten
2/3 cup Greek-style yogurt
1 pound of penne pasta
For the meat sauce, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Add the onion and saute for 5 minutes. Add the lamb and saute over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes until it's no longer pink. Break up the meat with a wooden spoon while cooking. Drain off any excess fat, add the wine and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40 to 45 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, start cooking the pasta in a large pot of boiling water until al dente. The pasta will cook more in the oven, so don't overcook it. Drain and set aside.
For the bechamel, heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until simmering. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter. Add the flour and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly for 2 minutes. Pour the warm milk and cream mixture into the butter and flour mixture, whisking constantly. Continue cooking, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 to 7 minutes, until smooth and thick. Add the nutmeg, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Stir in 3/4 cup of parmesan cheese, 1/2 cup of the tomato and meat sauce, and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the eggs and yogurt and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Add the pasta to the meat and tomato sauce, and pour the mixture into a large baking dish. Spread the bechamel evenly to cover the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot.
I decided to change that.
Attempting pastitsio seemed less intimidating than moussaka, because pastitsio essentially is Greek lasagna, and I've made lasagna before.
I went in search of recipe and found one on Food Network's website from Ina Garten, better known as the ''Barefoot Contessa.''
Now I realize Garten isn't Greek, but the recipe included the ingredients and flavors I associate with Greek cooking. But seeing the variety of recipes that are readily available, I get the feeling that pastitsio is like a lot of traditional ethnic dishes: everyone puts their own little spin on it.
The version I made followed Garten's recipe pretty closely. I added a little more pasta, using a whole pound instead of the 12 ounces originally suggested, and I used penne instead of tiny shells, mainly because the pastitsio I've had in the past was made with a tube-like pasta.
The biggest change I made was using all ground lamb for the meat sauce instead of a mix of lamb and ground beef. I made the change in part because I already had ground lamb in the freezer, but also because I didn't want its distinctive flavor to get lost in the heavy sauces.
Yes, that's sauces plural. Pastitsio is a fairly labor-intensive dish (and makes a lot of dirty dishes) because it requires two different sauces - a tomato meat sauce and a white bechamel sauce.
Neither sauce is particularly difficult, and the bechamel came together surprisingly well. And one perk of the meat sauce is that combination of tomatoes and garlic and cinnamon and oregano will make the kitchen smell marvelous, making the extra time spent there pleasurable.
The only thing I didn't like about the recipe is that it calls for adding a scoop of the meat sauce to the bechamel before topping the other ingredients. Instead of that thick, off-white layer on top that immediately distinguishes pastitsio, this version has a reddish top that makes the lasagna parallels even more pronounced.
The look may have been a bit different, but the flavors were spot-on. We ate it with a salad with kalamata olives, cucumbers and feta cheese (to give the lettuce and tomatoes a Greek flair) and a loaf of crusty bread.
It was a meal worthy of an ''Opa!''