Hot, savory, meaty: A meal to keep you in from the cold

Updated 2/13/2019 10:32 AM
  • A few substitutions make this Pastitsio a casserole to keep you warm on a snowy, wintry day.

    A few substitutions make this Pastitsio a casserole to keep you warm on a snowy, wintry day. Courtesy of Don Mauer

There's only one good thing about cold weather; the opportunity to spend time in a warm kitchen baking or preparing time-consuming casseroles.

Recently I came across a recipe for a Pastitsio (a Greek lamb casserole) at The Runaway Spoon ( Perre Coleman Magness, a Tennessee woman who hosts that blog, loves to cook. What caught my eye about Magness' recipe? Her recipe was a baked pasta contest runner-up and selected for inclusion in a cookbook (not hers). Major kitchen cred.

My kitchen pantry and fridge held almost all the ingredients, so I didn't have to head out into the frigid cold to shop. Magness' recipe required two pounds of ground lamb. I had a single pound of ground lamb and a pound of 85/15 grass-fed ground beef in my freezer. Not the same, but workable.

Magness suggested penne or ziti pasta; all I found in my pantry was organic, Italian rigatoni. Rigatoni's larger tube would let the sauce wander through it, like ziti or penne. Not the same; sufficiently close.

Magness seasoned her casserole with the usual salt and pepper and then added ground cinnamon, dried oregano, ground sumac and dried mint. Hard to believe I had the ground sumac and not the dried mint.

Sumac has a definite lemony flavor and is a beautiful deep red color. Don't have ground sumac? Don't let that stop you; the same amount of lemon pepper seasoning works well as a substitute.

Thank goodness for an icy-cold Saturday, since making this casserole is a three-step process: cooking the pasta, making the meat sauce and preparing a Parmigiano-Reggiano-flavored béchamel sauce and I had plenty of time.

Using filtered water to cook my pasta made sure it tasted great; always adding plenty of salt, so the cooking water also seasoned my pasta. I made sure that I drained the pasta while it was still just creeping-up on al dente since baking it in the sauce would continue cooking it.

Finally, Magness used 16-ounces of tomato paste for her sauce, mixed with 2 cups of water. I've never been a fan of tomato sauces created by only using tomato paste and 16-ounces of tomato paste the recipe required seemed like a lot. So as not wander too far afield, I used canned, diced tomatoes; including the liquid, and skipped the paste.

This casserole uses two kinds of cheese: feta in the sauce and Parmesan in the béchamel. Lucky me, I had both. As my pasta cooked, I chopped my onions and grated the Parmesan. Next, I started browning the ground meats and assembled the sauce in the same pan (once I'd spooned out some of the fat). While my sauce cooled I prepared the béchamel, which came together beautifully because the milk was room temperature and not refrigerator-cold.

Yes, breaking up the feta cheese into the casserole's sauce was a little messy, but my (clean) hands are my handiest go-to kitchen tool.

The recipe suggested a 9-by-13-inch pan which seemed a little tight; so, I subbed my higher-sided lasagna pan.

Once assembled, into my oven it went and in no-time my kitchen filled with amazing aromas. I'm sure Magness' version made a sensational casserole, but my wintry, stay-at-home version turned out amazing. Nan's son and grandson agreed; plus, her 16-year-old grandson went back for seconds.

• Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write to him at don@

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