When the New York Times published a pastitsio recipe, lovers of traditional Greek food howled about the deviation from what they believed to be the one true version. But while the baked dish that layers pasta, ragu, and a creamy bechamel sauce may be a Greek classic, the actual concept comes from a long Italian history of baked pastas, and variations are eaten all around the Mediterranean. In a nod to its origins, I like to call it pasticcio, the original Italian word for the dish that’s usually translated as “a big mess.”
Ground beef is typically used in the tomato sauce, but I subbed umami-dense mushrooms. And since the Greek dish always reminded me of moussaka, I added eggplant, too. Thumb-print shaped orecchiette replace the usual elbow macaroni. The texture and shallow cup of the “little ears” holds onto the sauces. Ras el hanout, the often-secret blend that spice merchants called the “head of the shop,” gives the pasticcio the flavor of the Levant and acknowledges the deep connections between Northern Africa and Southern Italy.
Just like “regular” pastitsio, I cook the components separately. The dry saute method of cooking mushrooms makes them brown nicely and concentrates the flavor. I roast the eggplant, then mix the vegetables into a simple tomato sauce. While tradition calls for layering the ragu and noodles, I just blend them together, then top with the Italian version of white sauce made with olive oil instead of butter. When the dish comes out of the oven with that lovely golden top, the only thing anyone will notice is how good it tastes.
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