I come from a big, fat, Greek family. And as in most ethnic cultures, food (and family) take center stage.
An Ode to Meat and Carbs
Practically every culture has some sort of comfort food. In the South, we often think of chicken and dumplings, chili and cornbread, or spaghetti and meatballs as a few favorite comfort foods. In the Greek culture, our comfort food is called pastichio: a delicious combination of ground beef, pasta and a cream (or “crema”) sauce.
But what do almost all comfort foods have in common? Meat and carbs. Of course. It’s the ideal combination of food groups that actually stick to you, keeping you full for hours—and needing a nap after 30 minutes. Too bad vegetables can’t keep us full like carbs can.
When I describe pastichio to friends, I often tell them it’s similar to that best friend from childhood or that good ol’ pair of jeans; things that just make you feel good about life. And pastichio does that, too. It’s comforting, understanding and always there when you need it.
So, it’s no surprise that pastichio is always the showstopper at my parties or potlucks with friends. Do you need a dish that feeds a crowd at your next potluck? Bring a pastichio. Are you stocking your freezer with meals, but you are tired of soups and stews? Pastichio is your answer. Are you throwing a party in an hour and need something quick? Make a pastichio.
What Really Makes a Pastichio So Wonderful?
For the record, pastichio is NOT a baked ziti, although I do tell my non-Greek friends that it's similar. In reality, though, it really isn’t very similar, mostly because it doesn’t have the chunky tomato sauce often found in a baked ziti.
- A perfect combination of meat and carbs (and vegetables if you consider tomatoes in the meat mixture as your meal’s vegetable)
- Appealing to the pickiest eaters
- Provides a breadth of flavors that keep your guests wanting seconds or thirds
- Freezer-friendly and can be separated into smaller casserole dishes
Yield: 10 servings (or 6 if your guests are very hungry)
For the meat mixture:
- 2 pounds ground beef (preferably 80% lean)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon allspice
- ¼ cup butter
- ½ cup tomato sauce
- ½ cup water
- 1 pound penne pasta
- 3¼ cups Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup butter
For the crema sauce:
- ½ cup butter
- 8 tablespoons flour
- 4 cups milk
- 5 egg yolks
- Salt and pepper to taste
- In a large skillet, combine ground beef, salt, pepper and allspice. Sauté until meat browns. Add in butter, then tomato sauce and water and simmer until liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes.
- In a separate pot, cook pasta according to the directions. Drain well. Then in a bowl, combine pasta with ½ cup butter. Grease an 11 x 14-inch baking pan with cooking space and sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
- Spoon the meat mixture into a large mixing bowl. Combine with buttered pasta and 3 cups Parmesan cheese. Spread mixture into pan.
- Prepare crema: Melt butter in a medium-sized saucepan and add flour, stirring until slightly brown.
- Gradually add milk, stirring constantly until slightly thickened.
- Slowly add in beaten egg yolks and cook over very low heat until thick, stirring often. Season with salt and pepper.
- Spread crema evenly over meat mixture. Sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup Parmesan cheese. Bake at 350° for 30 minutes.
- Don’t skip using a slotted spoon to scoop the meat mixture into the large bowl to mix it with the pasta. Extra fat from the meat will leave you and your guests feeling as if there's a brick in your stomach.
- If you absolutely love cheese, you could bump up the 3 cups of Parmesan cheese to 4 cups.
- Some folks are picky about their pasta. Elbow macaroni or other exotically shaped pasta can be used in place of penne.
- This can be made ahead. Simply prepare and refrigerate, covered, then bake for 45 minutes at 350°.
Big, Fat, Greek Party Tips
Now all hope isn’t lost if you’re not Greek—or don’t have Greek friends. Here are a few easy tips for throwing a Big, Fat, Greek Party:
- As we’ve mentioned, this dish is pretty heavy on the meat and carbs. So, consider providing a few Greek vegetable dishes, such as a Greek salad. Simply cut up tomatoes and cucumber; throw in olives and feta, and then drizzle with Greek dressing.
- The Greek culture, like other Mediterranean cultures, are big about small plates or tapas (called “mezze” in Greek). Some easy options for this are spanakopita (spinach-feta triangles), keftedes (mini-meatballs), or tzatziki (cucumber-yogurt dip) with pita bread.
- Costco or other large retailers really are your best friend. Pre-made tzatziki and spanakopita are just a car ride away.
- Don’t forget the baklava. Whether you have Greek friends or not, this is a staple dessert.
Mary Rebecca Says
Multiple Greek recipes are my go-to option when hosting family and friends. Pastichio is easy, quick, feeds a crowd (sometimes leaves leftovers for me to enjoy the next day), and is freezer friendly. And while several pastichio recipes may float around, this one is slightly healthier. I’ve found some recipes to leave you feeling as if you have a brick in your stomach. By draining the fat from the meat, and cutting down on the butter, this recipe doesn’t leave you feeling ready for a nap.
- Do you have a favorite comfort food?