Lamb and Eggplant Pastitsio

A few summers ago I was obsessed with eggplant. Italian, Japanese, white — every variety appeared on our kitchen counter. I made eggplant parmesan (yum), crispy sauteed eggplant with garlic (yum), an Asian dish that Jeff and I chucked (blech!). There was a roasted eggplant dip that I would love to make again, if I could just find the recipe. And when eggplant was about to disappear from the farmers market, I made pastitsio.

Pastitsio is a Greek pasta dish which, when done right, outshines moussaka. A combination of tubular pasta, ground lamb, diced eggplant, crushed tomatoes and spices make the base. More pasta is tossed with a creamy feta cheese sauce — because what casserole doesn’t have cheese? –and spread on top. It is baked until it starts to brown and bubble. Suddenly, you’ve got something you’ll make year after year.

There are few things I like more than a fork full of meaty, pasta goodness with some sort of cheese. But truth be told, this isn’t as heavy as it sounds. It’s hearty all right, but won’t leave you feeling like you’ve had a plate of lasagna. Last year at this time, when Gabi was a bun in the oven and my ankles were canisters, I made enough pastitsio to fill two of those aluminum baking trays. I stacked them in the freezer, along with lasagna, tetrazzini and nine loaves of zucchini and bread. Yes, the nesting instinct had kicked in. And happily, we had enough pastitsio to get us through Gabi’s borderline colicky phase and part of October.

This time, I made another double batch. We ate one last week. The other went into the freezer for later this fall. I must warn you, pastitsio will make a mess of your kitchen. Pots are required for the meat and cheese sauces, and then a pot is needed to boil the pasta. The amount of active cooking time here is 40 minutes, and 2.5 hours start to finish (it’s worth it, trust me).

Lamb and Eggplant Pastitsio
The Gourmet Cookbook

For lamb sauce
1  tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound lean ground lamb
1 garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in puree

For cheese sauce
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
1 garlic clove
1 whole clove
1/2 pound feta, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs

For pasta
10 ounces penne (3 cups)

Make lamb sauce:
Heat oil in a 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Add lamb, increase heat to moderately high, and cook, stirring and breaking up lumps, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes.

Add garlic, oregano, cinnamon, sugar, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in eggplant and tomatoes, cover,  and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until eggplant is just tender, about 40 minutes.

Remove lid and simmer, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened, about 15 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce and cook the pasta
Melt butter in a 2-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat. Whisk in flour and cook, whisking, for 3 minutes to make a roux. Whisk in milk and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Add garlic and clove, reduce heat, and simmer, whisking occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add feta, salt, and pepper and cook, whisking vigorously, until cheese is well incorporated. Remove from heat and discard garlic and clove.

Beat eggs in a large bowl. Gradually add sauce to eggs, whisking constantly.

Cook pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until just al dente; drain. Toss half of pasta with lamb sauce and half with cheese sauce.

Assemble pastitsio:
Pour pasta with lamb sauce into a wide shallow 3-quart baking dish, spreading evenly. Spoon pasta with cheese sauce on top, spreading evenly.

Bake pastitsio, uncovered, in middle of oven until bubbling and top is golden, 25 to 30 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.

Serves 6 to 8.

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