Some people love chocolate. Some people (eh-hem my husband) love candy. Some love cake or cookies or ice cream. For me, my biggest weakness is pasta. Whether it’s simple angel hair tossed in truffle oil and parmesan or it’s penne alla vodka, I love it all. I don’t discriminate too much with the ingredients I’ll cook/eat with pasta. Sometimes I want it simple and sometimes I just want to use up whatever leftover veg I have. There are a few go to ingredients like tomatoes (of course), garlic, onion, mushrooms and some sort of meat. If I have the time, making a lasagna from scratch is relaxing for me. Letting that sauce cook slowly to let the flavors really marry. Making that bechamel the way it should be and so on. Baked pasta dishes are great because usually it involves melted cheese and it just looks so pretty when it comes out of the oven. Also, I like that you can put it in the oven and tidy up before guests arrive! Both of the dishes today are baked coincidentally. But they seem appropriate as the season changes. Somehow I associate autumn with cozy casseroles and lots of starches!
First up is a dish I made earlier this summer on a whim but that had rave reviews, so I took another stab at it. It’s a Greek type of lasagna called Pastitsio. It’s like lasagna in that it has pasta, meat sauce and is topped with a bechamel sauce. I did an adapted version of Ina Garten’s recipe but here’s another one and another. What makes this dish so delicious and different is that it has cinnamon. If you’re able to, you should use an authentic Greek cheese Kefalotyri, but I used parmesan like Ina did. Here are the changes/adjustments I made to her recipe:
- MEAT: I used ground beef and pork instead of lamb. Not only is ground lamb (mince) a bit expensive but also I was cooking the dish for someone who doesn’t eat lamb. Also, be sure to season your meat with salt and pepper when you’re browning the meat.
- TOMATOES: I didn’t have tomatoes in puree, so I just used my chopped tomatoes which was just fine.
- SEASONING: I really love the cinnamon flavor, so I added more until I was happy with the taste. I also added a beef stock cube to just add depth of flavor.
- BECHAMEL: I never buy whole milk and didn’t want to use heavy cream. I find bechamel can be just as good with semi-skimmed (2%) milk, and you feel a little less guilty!
The cinnamon in this dish is so fragrant and in a way you won’t be used to. Normally we think of cinnamon as something sweet for dessert. But when you smell this spice in a savory dish, it just all makes sense. The first time I made this, I didn’t have any eggs to add to the bechamel so it came out softer. The second time I added eggs and you’ll see the difference in the photos because it set more. Both tasted great but I think I’d prefer the one that was softer. Some pastitsio recipes use just egg yolks rather than whole eggs like Ina. I might try that next time..
My second dish is just something I threw together – Baked Gnocchi and Spinach in a Creamy Sausage Tomato Sauce. I’ve posted my basic tomato sauce in Recipes, and for this dish I used carrot but not celery. I also added creme fraiche (not cream), and some oven-baked Cumberland sausages I happened to have. In case you don’t know what gnocchi is, it’s an Italian potato dumpling that is soft, thick, gooey and so good. And like pasta, it’s a perfect way to use up any meat or veg you have. I had some leftover sauteed spinach (that had been seasoned simply with salt and pepper), so I placed that at the bottom of the baking dish. I cooked the fresh gnocchi (which I bought at Borough Market) very quickly for just a minute in boiling water. Normally you know gnocchi is done when it floats to the surface. But because I was going to bake it, I under cooked it. So on top of the spinach, I added the gnocchi and sausage tomato sauce. I topped it with parmesan and homemade breadcrumbs (leftover crusts from sandwich bread that was blended with oregano). And then baked it until it was golden brown! SO good. I served it with some roasted asparagus wrapped in parma ham. And as always, it was hot, creamy and had a bit of breadcrumb crunch. It was still good as lunch the next day too! Hope it inspires you to whip up a pasta dish in your kitchen tonight!
For some more of MY soul food, check out this post.