A very dreary Saturday filled with absolutley torrential winter rain was an exceptionally special day for me. I had the wonderful opportunity for another day in the kitchen, with my gorgeous mother-in-law, Mrs K. It was made extra special because in a few weeks time, Mrs K will be heading back to her home island of Zakynthos for a visit - and I will miss her terribly while she is there! I am desperately trying to rearrange a hectic work schedule, so that Mr K and I might be able to get the time to spend a few days, with Mrs K and Mr K (Snr) in their idyllic homeland of Greece. I would cherish the opportunity to see Mrs K's homeland of Zakynthos, through her own eyes.
A little while ago, I shared with you, an afternoon in Mrs K's kitchen where we made taramosalata together. I wrote about how Mrs K and I have some shared language in common, with my little bit of Greek, Mrs K's English and a smattering of Italian. One of the reasons why I love the time in Mrs K's kitchen is because, apart from spoken language, we share the language of food and cooking. We don't really go shopping together or share a glass of wine chatting, as some of my friends do with their mother-in-law. When Mrs K and I share time together - there is usually always food involved. It is at a shared tabled, chatting together, surrounded by family or it is, as it was today, just the two of us together in the kitchen - slowly stirring a big pot of red sauce, heady with cinammon and tomato, and quietly talking and sharing stories, as I measure her "pinches" and "handfuls" into the pot.
In her fabulous book (which I recommend to absolutley everyone!), "Not Quite Nigella: The path to happiness through baking and blogging" Lorraine of Not Quite Nigella wrote about her relationship with food and her own mother, and how initially her mother was reluctant to share family recipes for a number of reasons. The paragraphs in Lorraine's book really turned my mind to examining why I gravitate to my mother in law's kitchen. Indeed, Lorraine's book had me thinking about this blog and why I had started it? Why have I always been drawn to the kitchens of my grandmothers and family? It also made me think about how generous my mother in law has been, warmly opening up her kitchen to her daughter in law.
Family recipes are really shrouded in an aura of sensitivity and Lorraine had me wondering - was I sensitive enough? Was I being too pushy? Should I be in this kitchen? Mrs K didn't need to share these recipes with me and she could have kept them well under wraps. Instead, she had embraced my presence in her kitchen and shared with me, not only her clever techniques and recipes from more than 60 years cooking for her family - but most importantly, she had shared with me her own history and life stories.
A few weeks ago, on meeting the new boyfriend of a close family member, Mr K had recounted, how - when he had first met my own family, he felt it was so important that he was open and generous with them, sharing with them as much of his own story and really, his personality, as they wanted to know, so that they could honestly see who he was. In his endearing and loving way Mr K had said to me, your family absolutley adore and love you. I wanted them to see that I felt exactly the same way - and that I love and respect both you and your family.
Mr K's words were echoing in my ears this morning, while cooking with Mrs K. I couldnt help but think, in sharing this time together in the kitchen, I hoped I was showing Mrs K, just how much I adored her son and indeed her and her whole family. In stirring the red sauce and briskly whisking the 'crema' or Béchamel sauce - I was not only learning more about Mrs K, but she was learning a little more about me. In a week of turbulent political affairs in Australia and what is seemingly like more and more debased media reporting (from whichever side of politics you prefer) - the concept of respect was first and foremost in my mind. Spending time in Mrs K's kitchen felt like away for me to demonstrate my respect for Mrs K, her culture and of course, her remarkable talent for and experience of over 60 years of cooking.
The dish that Mrs K shared with me today was a celebration dish. It features on the Easter and Christmas table, and for other special occasions. Pastitsio is a baked pasta dish, which has a rich, spiced tomato sauce and a thick creamy Béchamel topping, rich with eggs and piquant aged Greek cheese. The origins of this dish are actually from the Ionian islands, Mrs K's homeland. The dish is supposed to have its origin in the Venetian period, a Renassiance style lasagne. Mrs K told me today that despite its origins, she had only eaten the dish maybe once or twice on her home Island. As I mentioned in my last post from Mrs K's kitchen, Mrs K grew up in Zakynthos during the conflict of World War 2. The harsh time of this period is known in Greece as the Great Famine (Μεγάλος Λιμός), where there was mass starvation in the Axis-occupied country. Mrs K learnt to make this dish when she first travelled to Athens in the mid 1950s, as a part of her long journey to her new life in Australia.
Mrs K's Pastitsio
Cooking time: 1 hr + 45 mins cooking time
Oven temp: 170C
There are three parts to making a Pastitsio, the meat sauce, the pasta and the cream sauce. Mrs K's tip is to have lots of pots and pans ready to use - and don't rush to make the dish, take your time!
3 medium sized onions, chopped very finely
3 garlic cloves, chopped very finely
750g home-ground beef mince (Mrs K makes her own)
1 tbs of Greek tomato paste
1 cinnamon stick
1 small piece of fresh chilli
1kg of fresh tomatoes
To make the meat sauce
In a sauce pan, gently fry onion and garlic in olive oil, until soft and transparent. Add the ground beef. Stir well and cook until the meat begins to brown. While the meat is cooking, prepare the tomatoes to add to the sauce.
Add the tomato juice, cinnamon and piece of chilli to the meat sauce and allow to simmer until the meat is tender (about 20 mins) check for seasoning and add salt to taste.
500g Greek 'macaronia' a long tubular shaped pasta, similar to bucatini or ziti Italian pasta
2 tbs butter
1/4 cup finely grated kefalotiri or pecorino cheese
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon of nutmeg
To make the pasta:
While the meat sauce is cooking, make the pasta. Break macaronia in half and cook in boiling salted water until just ended. Drain and return to the pan. Melt butter and pour over macaronia. Add the cheese, nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Leave until cool, then add the egg whites and set aside.
1/3 cup butter
1/4 cup kefalotiri or Parmesan
7 tbs flour, sifted
About 1 litre of milk (you may not need all of it), warmed
2 egg yolks
Salt and pepper
To make the cream sauce:
Melt butter in a saucepan, stir in flour and cook gently for about 2 minutes. Add warm milk and little at a time, bring to the boil and stir constantly. Boil gently for about 1 minute and add the nutmeg and cheese. Take off the heat when the mixture is about the consistency of thick pouring cream. Allow to cool a little and stir in the egg yolks.
To assemble the Pastitsio:
Butter an oven dish and spoon over the prepared pasta evenly in the base. Top with the meat sauce and then pour on cream sauce, spreading evenly to cover the meat and pasta. Dot with a few small pinches of butter. Cook in the oven at 170C for around 45 mins to 1 hour, or until golden. Let it stand for 10 minutes before cutting into squares to serve.