Friday, 11 March 2011

Έχω ένα Παρθενώνα στο παντελόνι μου

Ah, Greece... the land of Socrates, tear gas and Skodas with missing radiator grills.  How I miss those Erasmus days...

This was one of my favourite dishes during my Erasmus year and cooking it tonight brought so many memories flooding back.  Greeks use a lot of lamb and veal in their dishes because their pasture is not so suitable for grazing large adult animals - for that, you want a crap rainy country like England.  They have perfected the art of slow-cooking such meat to make it tender and delicious.  They also have a lot of pasta dishes, such as this, which is basically your classic lasagne al forno but with tubular pasta instead of lasagne sheets.  Make this in bulk, bring your friends round, crack open a bottle of Greek wine and enjoy!

NOTE FOR BRITISH PEOPLE: bear in mind that, like lasagne, this is a pasta dish with meat - not the other way round.  That's why I haven't used a metric tonne of mincemeat like I would if I were making shepherd's pie.  Also, don't overcook your pasta unless you're a school dinner lady called Pat.

Ingredients (to feed six Greeks/four Brits):
  • 500g good quality minced lamb
  • 1 x 400g tin of Italian chopped tomatoes
  • 2 x garlic cloves
  • 1 x red onion
  • 1 x carrot
  • About a third of a bottle of red wine
  • 3 x rosemary sprigs
  • 250-300g penne/macaroni/whatever the Greeks call their version
  • 600ml milk
  • 50g butter
  • 75g plain flour
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 x bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • A bit of grated nutmeg (to taste)
  • 50g (roughly - use what you like) freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or Kefalotiri if you can get it)

Meat sauce
  1. Get your lamb mince out of the fridge about half an hour in advance so it can adjust to room temperature.  Get your frying pan very hot and add a little olive oil - not too much as lamb is very fatty.  Sear the mince in batches, removing each batch when it's lightly browned.  Season each batch in turn.  Drain the mince into a bowl using a strainer so that your meat sauce doesn't get too greasy, but reserve the collected fat.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium.  Top and tail the carrots.  Slice the onions in half, cut off the offending protuberances and peel them.  Grate the carrots and onions into the pan and sweat them for a few minutes.  If you need more fat in the pan, use some of the reserved lamb fat in the bowl for extra flavour.
  3. Finely chop the garlic.  Take the rosemary sprigs off the leaves and chop them finely too.  Add both to the olive oil and stir in.  When they become fragrant, pour in the wine and put the mince back in.    Bring it to the boil then reduce to a simmer until there's hardly any liquid left, which should take about 15 minutes..  Add the bay leaves and chopped tomatoes and, again, bring it to the boil then simmer it gently for about an hour and a half, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking.  Use your spatula to break up lumps.  You should be left with a thick, smooth meat sauce.  Discard the bay leaves when it's finished.
Cheese sauce

  1. Go and have a cup of tea and watch the One Show or something, then melt the butter in a saucepan on a low heat.  Stir in the flour bit by bit - you may only need 50g but you should get a paste (called a "roux", for future reference).  Stir in the milk a bit at a time until you have a thick but smooth white sauce.
  2. Grate in a bit of nutmeg and some parmesan cheese according to taste and set aside.
Putting it all together

  1. Stick the oven on at 200 degrees.  Boil your pasta for 8-9 minutes (ignore the instructions on the packet - they're designed for old people who read the Daily Express and listen to Daniel O'Donnell) until al-dente.  Add a bit of the starch from the water to the meat sauce to loosen it, then drain the pasta.
  2. Stir about a fifth of the cheese sauce into the pasta, making sure it gets a good coating.
  3. Lightly grease a lasagne dish with olive oil and arrange all your components in layers as follows:  pasta, half the meat sauce, pasta, the other half of the meat sauce, cheese sauce, pasta, LOADS of cheese sauce, then grate some more parmesan over the top.  See above for an artist's impression of what this should look like.
  4. Bake it in the oven for about 20 minutes until the top is golden brown.  Leave it to rest for a few minutes, then serve it with a nice green salad on the side and a glass of red wine.