Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Recipe for Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil Béchamel (Παστίτσιο με Αγκινάρες και Κρέμα Βασιλικό)

Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil BechamelIs it possible to make vegetarian Pastitsio with more zest than its traditional namesake? The answer is an emphatic yes. Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil Béchamel is so alive with flavor it will make your tastebuds stand up and sing the Greek national anthem.

Pastitsio is a traditional Greek dish. As with most foods that’ve been around for a long time, there’s a million and one ways to make Pastitsio. Family and regional variations are the norm rather than the exception. A typical Pastitsio recipe has layers of tube pasta surrounding a meat-based tomato sauce and is topped with creamy béchamel.

When Tony Tahhan and Peter Minakis
laid down a challenge to recreate Pastitsio using my own individual style, at first I was stumped. I’d already created a wonderful recipe for Pastitsio with Greens and was doubtful I could come up with anything better.

For nearly a week, I laid in bed at night coming up with Pastitsio ideas, and rejecting them all as uninspired. Then I went to Costco, lost my shopping list, and found my inspiration.

Losing the list forced me to go up and down every Costco aisle, something I rarely do, in hopes that seeing what was there might remind me of what we needed at home. Roaming the aisles helped, but also led to impulse buys (the exact reason I avoid wandering around without a list).

Marinated Artichoke HeartsOne of my impulse buys was a 65-ounce jar of Kirkland/Cara Mia marinated artichoke hearts. That’s right – a jar of artichokes weighing just over 4 pounds. I didn’t have any particular plans for the artichokes; even so, I had to have them.

That evening when I went to bed for my nightly game of Pastitsio, Pastitsio, What Kind of Pastitsio, a partial answer came almost immediately. I’d make my Pastitsio with marinated artichoke hearts.

In 1982, I bought the
ground-breaking Silver Palate Cookbook. The day I bought it, before I had time to crack the book, I went to a friend’s house for dinner. She served tortellini and a spicy tomato sauce full of artichoke hearts. It was love at first taste. I asked for the recipe; she’d made it from the very cookbook I’d just purchased.

Pasta Sauce Raphael, the recipe I’d fallen in love with, was named after a cook at the Silver Palate, the New York City take-out shop that gave its name and recipes to the cookbook. Recently, I read an interview with one of the owner/authors, on the occasion of the Silver Palate Cookbook’s 25th anniversary. She said Pasta Sauce Raphael is one of the all-time most requested Silver Palate recipes. I understand why; it’s delicious.

Since I first encountered it, I’ve never stopped making Pasta Sauce Raphael, a blend of tomatoes, marinated artichoke hearts, herbs, and lots of black pepper. It’s always a hit, no matter to whom I serve it. Best of all, it’s made with pantry staples.

My well-used Silver Palate Cookbook has a notation that I made Raphael Sauce in July 1987 for Alaska Governor Steve Cowper when he visited our home in
Bethel, Alaska. I also made it in 1990 when I catered a fundraising dinner in Juneau, Alaska for not-then-but-later Alaska Governor Tony Knowles. Both Governors loved Pasta Sauce Raphael. At least, they said they did and Alaska Governors never lie, right?

After settling on a Raphael Sauce variation for the Pastitsio filling, I needed a topping that would stand up to its robust flavors. I started with béchamel, the standard topping for Pastitsio, and enhanced it with fresh ricotta cheese and lots of fresh basil.

The end result, Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil Béchamel, was everything I wanted: spicy, but not overwhelming; layers of distinct flavors that taste good on their own and even better blended together; vegetarian, with no compromise on flavor; a recipe for slow evenings at home or rollicking dinner parties; creative fare that fits the traditional Pastitsio mold.

Most importantly, Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil Béchamel is distinctly my own style of food: colorful and bold tasting, using Mediterranean flavor principles and simple techniques. This is a recipe I’ll make again and again.

Artichoke Pastistio with Basil Bechamel
Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil Béchamel (Παστίτσιο με Αγκινάρες και Κρέμα Βασιλικό)
Serves 12 as a main course or 24 as a side dish
Be sure to crush all the peppercorns; most eaters won’t want to bite into large peppercorn chunks. Though 2 tablespoons of crushed peppercorns sounds like a lot, it's balanced by the mild pasta, cheese, and topping. (The original recipe for Raphael Sauce calls for a whopping 3 tablespoons of freshly crushed black peppercorns.) Don't cut up the artichoke pieces, leaving them large protects the flavor of artichokes from being lost in the spicy sauce. Instead of small jars of marinated artichoke hearts, it’s more cost-effective to buy large jars.

3 6-ounce jars marinated artichoke hearts (or 24 artichoke pieces and 3/4 cup of marinade from a giant jar of artichokes)
4 cups diced yellow onions, 1/2” dice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
1 Tbsp. dried oregano, crushed
2 Tbsp. freshly crushed black peppercorns

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cups whole milk
3 ounces parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 cup ricotta cheese, preferably whole milk
1 packed cup fresh basil leaves

1 pound Pastitsio pasta, small penne, or other hollow pasta
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

Make the Sauce: Separate the artichoke pieces from the marinade. Remove as much oil from the marinade as possible; a fat separator makes this task easy. Discard the oil and reserve the rest of the marinade.

Sauté the onions, lightly seasoned with salt, in olive oil until the onions soften and start to turn golden. Add the Aleppo pepper and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, oregano, and crushed black peppercorns, bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.

Add the reserved artichoke marinade and simmer for 30 minutes.

Add the artichoke pieces and simmer until the sauce is very thick, about 30 minutes. (The sauce may be made ahead to this point.)

Make the Béchamel: While the artichoke sauce is cooking, make the béchamel. Warm the milk over low heat or in the microwave; don’t bring the milk to a boil. Melt the butter in a large saucepan, thoroughly mix in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Slowly stir in the warm milk and cook, stirring, until the sauce is smooth and the thickness of heavy cream. Season with salt to taste. Stir in the 3 ounces of freshly grated parmesan cheese and take the béchamel off the heat.

Measure out 1 1/2 cups of béchamel and set aside to mix into the pasta. Thoroughly mix the ricotta into the remaining 2 1/2 cups béchamel. In a blender or food processor, purée the basil and one cup of the béchamel-ricotta mix; stir this purée back into the remaining béchamel-ricotta mix.

Cook the Pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until it’s al dente (the length of cooking time depends on the size of the pasta). Drain the pasta in a colander, and mix it with the reserved 1 1/2 cups béchamel.

Assemble the Pastitsio: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Place half the pasta in the bottom of a well-oiled 9” x 13” baking pan. Sprinkle the pasta with 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese. Spread the artichoke sauce over the cheese, making sure the artichoke pieces are evenly distributed. Top with the remaining pasta and another 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese. Spread the Basil Béchamel over the pasta and top with the remaining 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350°F and cook for 40-45 minutes, or until the top of the Pastitsio is golden and set. Let cool for at least 15-20 minutes before cutting into squares and serving (if you cut Pastitsio immediately after removing it from the oven it will fall apart).


Peter G | Souvlaki For The Soul said...

And what a great version this is Laurie...packed with Mediterranean goodness!

Joanne said...

Is this ever a creative version of traditional pastitsio!! I could see myself eating this everyday for a month and not getting bored with it. Laurie, would dill work in the bechamel in lieu of basil, as it's really difficult to find an abundance of basil in the markets...You typically get 5 leaves for $3!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Laurie - nice to see you found my blog today. Your interpretation is very creative and sounds much lighter than the original pastitsio. Sounds like a great recipe for spring!

Maria Verivaki said...

i really did love your spinach pastitsio - when i was in london, i was served a spinach lasagne, which was made in a very similar way to the spinach pastitsio. this one looks just as creative - beautiful presentation too

Jude said...

Oh,gosh, am I glad I fell upon your site (and of course Med Kiwi)
Makes my eyes(sorry, mouth) water just reading the description and the ingredients.
I always thought there must me something more to the sad artichoke,so when I arrived in the Med, I realised what I'd been missing..........
I'll be trying out this recipe asap!

Peter M said...

Laurie, this pastitsio reminds of the one I had at Pylos in NYC. Your's is different but hey...I'm a pragmatic your interpretation.

Maria said...

Laurie, that looks and sounds divine! Beautiful recipe and lovely flavor combinations.

I tried a simple artichoke and spinach lasagna once with a light bechamel and it was okay ... I would make your artichoke pastitsio a hundred times over.

FOODalogue said...

that not only sounds delicious, it's beautiful to look at!

Anonymous said...

Ενδιαφέρουσα πρόταση! Δεν πειράζει που γράφω ελληνικά, ε;


Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks Peter!

Bijoux, I understand the problem with basil being unreasonably expensive. One option might be to mix some pesto from the refrigerated section of the market in with the topping (that is if you can find prepared pesto worth buying). I probably wouldn't use dill; I think fresh thyme, oregano, or marjoram would be better (of course, you wouldn't use as much of these three as the basil - maybe 1 or 2 Tbsp. - I'd start adding them and tasting and keep adding until the herb flavor is distinct, but not overwhelming).

Lexi, thanks for stopping by.

Thanks Maria!

Hey Jude, glad you fell in!

Peter - let's hear it for pragmatism! I sure would like to eat at Pylos - it sounds so wonderful.

Maria, thank you - I'm so happy you like it.

Joan, did you like how I polished up the baking pan - HA!

Καλώς ήρθατε, ΝικΝικ!! Ελληνικά είναι εντάξει - μπορώ να το διαβάσετε, αλλά δεν μπορώ να γράψω πολύ καλά.

Mediterranean Turkish Cook said...


To my knowledge, I don't think I have ever had pastitsio and I've been seeing it quite a bit in blogs lately, including Tony's. It makes me curious about it. This sure looks amazing.

Joanne said...

Thanks Laurie, that is a great idea!! I have tried a few brands of pesto and yes, some a defintiely better than others. There is one particular brand that is pretty good and which requires continuous refrigeration, even prior to breaking the seal, so it is the freshest and tastiest option out there. I will give this a try soon.

Anonymous said...

This is such a great twist on pastitsio. Artichokes were one of those things I didn't appreciate until later in life, but I love them now. This looks great!

Kanella said...

What an amazing take on such a classic. Nice job!

Anonymous said...

This sounds incredibly good, definitely a must-try. And yes, it sounds like your style. As does, "For nearly a week, I laid in bed at night coming up with Pastitsio ideas, and rejecting them all as uninspired." LOL!

the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

Miraculous! I love the combination of pasta and pistachios.

I also like the this seems to be a recipe I can make one-handed--except for stirring the bechamel--maybe I can do that left-handed too (I am a bit disabled for the moment, but keeping a positive attitude, and pasta helps!).

the chocolate doctor מרת שאקאלאד said...

I meant pasta and artichokes.

Laurie Constantino said...

Nihal, as I said in this piece, traditional pastitsio is different than this. You should try it sometime!

Bijoux - can't wait to hear about it!

Elly - I'm like you, I never ate artichokes until I was an adult. Sure do love them now tho!

Kanella, thank you!

HAHA, Lulu!! It's a wierd combination of insomnia and OCD!

Chocolate lady, I knew you meant artichokes!! Can you open a can with one hand?? Hope your arm is better soon!

Núria said...

What a wonderful Pastitsio you created!!!! I have to try this dish soon... and artichokes are still in season :D

manju said...

What a great twist on pastitsio. I love that cookbook and that sauce, too, and I'm sure the ladies at Silver Palate would be honored to know how you brought their sauce into a 21st century creation. Brava!

Rumela said...

Oh...My Goodness. Those recipe look absolutely amazing. Yum, yum, yum. Great recipe!! The combination is truly fascinating. artichoke pastitsio with basil béchamel both are nutritious and good for health. So a twice combination is likely to be tasty and healthy alike. thank you for shearing your post.