Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mushroom Ragu Pastitsio

Sometimes, tackling another culture's cuisine can be daunting, especially a culture's iconic and most recognizable dishes.

Among "foodie" and foodblogging circles, we talk of "authenticity" sometimes, but personally, I haven't come across a definition that works for me for all dishes, all cuisines, all of the time. Which is why I've stopped most hand-wringing, hair-pulling, and teeth-gnashing around the whole concept of authenticity.

For me, the whole notion of "authenticity" is a little like what that judge said in a famous censorship case about obscenity: I figure we'll know if and when a dish is authentic or not when I see it. And smell it, and think about it, and finally, when we taste it. Interestingly enough, it is often easier to tell when a dish is not authentic than when it is authentic, but judging ultimately requires a knowledge or experience of both.

In this the case of pastitsio, one of Greece's most recognizable dishes, I admire and can only hope to emulate a perfectly constructed pastitsio, in the manner of the Sam at Greek Gourmand, but sometimes, because we are constrained by imperfect conditions, I am also quite thankful that Peter has called for "pragmatic" pastitsio for this edition of Tony Tahhan's A Taste of the Mediterranean event.

I do not claim my pastitsio to be über-authentic, but I wouldn't go so far to disclaim that my version is wholly inauthentic. I can testify that I did have that perfectly constructed pastitsio in mind when I made this and I tried to stay true to the spirit of the Greek pastitsio.

I didn't have a specific desire to make my pastitsio vegetarian, but that is what I ended up doing, because I had no ground beef (only ground pork in the fridge) but had a pound and a half of ordinary button mushrooms in the fridge.

Ordinarily I would use fancier mushrooms than the regular old button, but being pragmatic, there is no good reason not to use these mushrooms for a mushroom ragu pastitsio.

When I titled the dish such, I suppose some might say I am offending the two gods at the same time, that of "ragu" and of "pastitsio." Oh well. My standard answer is I do not take these terms in disrespect and mean no disrespect.

Mushroom Ragu

To begin my mushroom ragu, I put my mirepoix (celery, onions and carrots) in the food processor and minced them up. I sautéed these in a pan while I minced up a pound and a half of mushrooms in the same food processor.

After the mirepoix has gotten some caramelization going, I added garlic. After garlic is fragrant, the mushroom mince went in and I let the whole thing caramelize even more.

I suppose, as with most ragus, the more patient you are, the better the ragu is going to be. I added about 2 cups of tomato sauce that I had simmering on the stove and let the ragu mixture simmer some more.

For the "Greek" spicing, I added a fourth of a teaspoon of cinnamon, the same amount of smoked hot paprika, and a couple of allspice berries. I also added a teaspoon of oregano and the same amount of thyme, along with a couple of bay leaves and let them all simmer for about half an hour more.

I made a simple béchamel sauce by making a roux (cooking equal amounts of butter and flour), whisking in milk until it thickened. I finished it off with just nutmeg.

When I couldn't wait for the ragu anymore, I turned off the heat and started with the assembly.

We don't have a deep enough dish for lasagna so I settled for this square 8" x 8" baking pan. I didn't want to make too big of a batch, because I wasn't sure how this vegetarian pastitsio is going to go over with carnivorous members of my family.

I also didn't have bucatini or a thicker pasta but we did have some oven-ready cannelloni in the pantry. I figure I'll try my mushroom ragu pastitsio using these fat cannelloni. I just hoped that the pasta would hold up well.

So that's a layer of cannelloni, then mushroom ragu, followed by the béchamel. I topped the whole thing off with grated pecorino cheese.

Into the oven (350F) and about 40 minutes later, it was done. I decided to broil it to get a nice bubbly top.

I left mine a second too long under the broiler because I was all agog. (Post about my agog state soon!)

This Mushroom Ragu Pastitsio was a very filling, very comforting dish. The mushroom ragu was very umami, very full, very bold-flavoured, balanced by the rich creaminess of the simple béchamel sauce. The nutmeg in the béchamel played well with the cinnamon and allspice in the ragu, giving this pasta dish that signature Greek twist.

My pastitsio looks a little squished and squat, because I was limited by my very shallow baking pan. I could only have one layer each of pasta, ragu, and bechamel. Next time, when I get a proper baking pan, perhaps, I'll also have a tall and hefty pastitsio.

eatingclub vancouver Greek
"Greek" Calamari
Simple Greek Meal
Caper Salad
Greek Meatball Soup (Giouvarlakia)
Marinated Feta
Greek Shrimp with Feta
Greek Ribs with Tzatziki
Mushroom Ragu Pastitsio
Spanakorizo (Greek Spinach Rice)
Zucchini Ribbons Salad with Anchovy Dressing
Souvlaki (Pork and Chicken)
Tomato Bread Salad, Greek-style
Grilled Fish Fillet on Oregano
Pastéli (Greek Sesame Snaps)

Mushroom Ragu Pastitsio
Serves 6 to 8
Makes 1 8" x 8" pan

1 box canneloni, 200g (other pasta can be substituted)

3 stalks celery
2 onions
2 medium carrots

4 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1.5 lbs button mushrooms
3 cups tomato sauce (reserve 1 cup for pastitsio assembly)

1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp smoked hot paprika
2 whole allspice berries
salt and pepper

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup butter
4 cups milk
1 tsp ground nutmeg

To make Mushroom Ragu:
1. Mince mirepox ingredients (celery, onions, carrots) in a food processor.
2. Take out celery, onion, carrots from the food processor. Put in mushrooms and process.
3. Add oil to skillet, and when hot, saute the mirepoix until lightly caramelized.
4. Add garlic. After 30 seconds or when fragrant, add mushroom mince.
5. Add 2 cups of the tomato sauce.
6. Add the herbs.
7. Let the mixture simmer until it cooks down to a thick sauce, about 30-45 minutes.

To make Béchamel:
8. Melt butter in saucepan.

9. Whisk in the flour until just lightly golden.
10. Slowly add the milk, whisking as you go, to prevent lumps from forming.
11. Season with salt and pepper. Add nutmeg.

To assemble Pastitsio:
12. Ladle about a cup of tomato sauce at the bottom of the pan or until bottom is covered.
13. Arrange pasta in a neat layer.
14. Layer on the mushroom ragu.
15. Layer on the bechamel sauce.
16. Top with cheese.
17. Bake in the oven at 350 for approximately 35 to 40 minutes.
18. Broil until top is golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Other pastitsio:
Greek Gourmand: Pastitsio Perfection
Wandering Chopsticks: Pastitsio
Kalofagas: Pastitsio, Deconstructed


  1. JS & TS, I'm delighted that you ventured and entered the ATOM event - focus Greece.

    There's the classic Pastitsio, regional versions, there are family variances on the classic, modern versions, versions that use what's at hand in their region or versions that are adapted to meet dietary or palate differences.

    Your take on it is much appreciated, looks delish and a welcome table setting is in place for a heaping serving!

  2. Interesting thing about authentic... for me, I think of it as the way the "locals" would cook, serve or eat their native dishes. The challenge, of course, is translating the dishes when you get home. I just took a cooking class in Vietnam and we prepared a dish that tasted just like the street food I ate. When I got home, it tasted totally different, even though I purchased all the special ingredients (that I could bring through customs) there... is the pork different in the US, maybe it's fragrance of the lemongrass or the quality of our honey?

    By the way, authentic or no, your pastitsio looks great, and I think you broiled it for the just the perfect amount of time!

  3. I don't need (or care for) an 'authenticity certificate' to chow down on that dish. It looks absolutely delicious to me.

  4. A vegetarian dish that looks delicious! Sure winner!

  5. I've been wanting to make a (non-authentic) vegetarian pastitsio, and your mushroom ragu looks fantastic!

  6. Who's to say what's authentic anymore, one person claims their version is, another claims theirs is the only way to go. All I know is this dish looks & sounds really tasty & that's what food is about

  7. I wouldn't bat an eyelash about authenticity if you offered me this - it looks amazing!

  8. Ladies I don't think I'd worry too much about your authenticity - not when you're making something that looks this tasty.

  9. Ahhhh.... I really, really enjoyed this dish! I came home with the kids, saw a serving ready with fork. I thought, "Hmmm... let me just give this a try and see if the kids might like it." So I tried, and tried and tried; asked the kids half-heartedly if they wanted some (they were too busy playing to even answer) and so I decided that I'll just have the whole plate anyway. And the next morning, I had it for breakfast. Yeah, it was that good. And yes, I'm a carnivore usually. Thanks, JS!

  10. Leave me out on authenticity here...I just know it looks darn delicious.

  11. Authentic, shmauthentic. The important issue is whether it tastes good - and your mushroom pastitsio looks absolutely delicious. I'd be happy to eat it any day!!

  12. Think of how many dishes are "a take on", or even de-constructed. I personally think flavor is what's best not construction or authenticity.

    Well done dish here guys!

  13. PeterM:
    Thanks so much, Peter! =)

    That's a good point, about the difficulty in recreating out of its place of origin. Without recreating the exact conditions, it can't really be exactly the same. And yes, the same imgredients are not the same at all, coming from different places.

    Joan Nova:

    This time, truly, we didn't even realize it was vegetarian, hehe. =D

  14. lisaiscooking:
    Sweet Bird:
    Thanks. =)

    Haha... you got that right, regarding MEXICAN tomatoes and CHINESE noodles. =)

    It really wasn't apparent at all that this was "vegetarian", seeing as carnivore-CSC enjoyed it IMMENSELY. =)

    Laurie Constantino:
    Thanks a lot! =)


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