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My Big Fat Greek Casserole

An Ethnic Eatery Yields Comforting Pastitsio


    Back in the early 1980s I dined frequently at a wonderful Greek restaurant in a small, dimly lit storefront in a residential section of Norfolk, Va. The Orapax Inn seated about 35 people and was furnished by the Greek immigrant owner, who made the chairs and tables from wine barrels. The tablecloths were red-checked and well worn. The owner cooked the food, greeted his customers and cleaned up after closing. His food was excellent and contained flavors of Greece that I have found in few other places.
    I have had some of my best food experiences in just that kind of small neighborhood restaurant. Often I know the local restaurants even before I know the doctor or dentist or where other essential services are located. Neighborhood restaurants have a charm and flavor not found in chain operations or in high-profile celebrity-chef showcases. The prices are usually reasonable, the atmosphere warm and welcoming, with decor that can range from diner-style to a reflection of the owners’ homes.
    And because they are usually owner-operated, their menus often stem from the proprietors’ ethnic backgrounds, with authentic dishes and recipes handed down from relatives and friends as far back as the country of origin.
    On various visits to the Orapax Inn I dined next to a U.S. congressman, a college president, college students, merchant seamen, longshoremen and many other people with diverse backgrounds who all came to eat the Greek comfort food and enjoy the companionship of both the owner and the other patrons. It seemed everyone knew each other and shared opinions and conversation in a way that would not have taken place anywhere else. It was a great experience I still treasure.
    The accompanying recipe is my version of the incredible pasta casserole, called pastitsio, which I enjoyed there more times than I can remember. The exact restaurant recipe is lost to me because I could never totally understand the owner, who spoke with a heavy accent, but I think you will find it a very tasty example of Greek comfort food from a neighborhood restaurant.
—Roy Creekmore
—Photography by Paul Skrentny


Pastitsio

Béchamel Sauce:
3 tablespoons butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups hot (but not boiling) milk
2 teaspoons salt
black pepper, to taste
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1½ cups grated kasseri cheese, or feta
2 large eggs, beaten

Tomato Sauce with meat:
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, chopped
1/3 pound of ground turkey
2/3 pound ground beef
½ cup red wine
1 bay leaf
1 stick of cinnamon
2 cloves
1 can of tomatoes (28 oz.)
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

1 pound ziti or penne pasta
1½ cups of mixed grated cheese, equal parts Parmigiano and kasseri

    To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a two-quart saucepan, then add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until a paste forms. Cook for a minute, stirring to prevent browning. Turn the heat down very low and add the hot milk, little by little, stirring constantly to keep the flour from forming lumps. Continue cooking, stirring steadily until the sauce thickens. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese. Slowly pour the beaten eggs into the sauce, stirring constantly until completely incorporated. Set aside.
    To make the meat sauce, melt the butter over medium-high heat in a medium-sized pan with 2- to 3-inch sides. Add the onion and sauté until transparent. Add the ground meat mixture and cook, breaking into small pieces, until the meat just browns. Pour in the wine and add the bay leaf, cinnamon, cloves and canned tomatoes. Lower the heat and simmer the sauce for 40 to 45 minutes until a relatively thick sauce remains. Just before the end of cooking, stir in the chopped parsley.
    Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; cook the pasta until al dente and then drain. To prepare the final dish, put half the pasta in a 2- to 3-quart baking dish, sprinkle with some of the mixed, grated cheeses and cover with all of the meat sauce. Add the rest of the pasta and sprinkle with some more of the cheeses. Pour the béchamel sauce over the pasta–meat sauce mixture and sprinkle the last of the cheeses on top. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 40 minutes until lightly browned on top and the béchamel has set. Remove from the oven and let rest 10 to 15 minutes before serving. Serves six to eight.

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