I told my family that if team Greece won its game against Costa Rica in the World Cup last week, I would make pastachio. While the Greek boys lost the game, once the word “pastachio” entered my teenage boy’s brain, the deal was sealed.
If you’ve never been lucky enough to eat this dish, you need to get yourself to a Greek restaurant or find yourself a nice YaYa to invite you over, pronto. It’s been called the Greek lasagna, but most Greeks scoff at that comparison; as if lasagna compares.
Here’s the blueprint: long, tubular pasta layered with a meat sauce simmered in tomato sauce and spices, topped with not one but two bechamel sauces — one thin and one thick — and not one but two layers of ground Romano cheese. Bake it until it comes together to form a version of heaven on Earth.
My sweet mama was not Greek, but she was clever, and she ingratiated herself into the hearts of the Greek ladies I grew up with and learned how to cook like they did. Greek ladies can be rather exacting when it comes to their cooking, and most would not welcome a “white” woman into the fold. My mom, however, was famous for breaking through such barriers. She learned to cook with the best of them.
She was also famous for transcribing her recipes in a kooky way. The most widely repeated example is her recipe for chicken crepes (yes, homemade crepes) that contain no chicken. Good luck pulling that one off, amateurs.
Her pastichio recipe isn’t missing any key ingredients (as far as I know), but it is light on descriptions and specific instructions. As in: “Prepare the thin sauce by melting the butter and adding the flour when it’s time.” Ok, over what kind of heat? Medium? High? And what exactly does “when it’s time” mean? And how does one know when the “thin” sauce is thickened enough to add the egg? It is a “thin” sauce, after all.
My mom taught me how to make pastichio, and while it’s a foolproof way to win friends and influence people, it’s also a lot of work. A lot. Really a lot. I don’t take on pastichio on a whim. But seeing Team Greece in the World Cup inspired me (and my #1 son pestered me). But mainly I was inspired. It had nothing to do with thisOr thisOr thisOr thisAnd it certainly had nothing to do with thisRight.
Back to the recipe.
For the food that my son, my pride & joy, asked me to make.
To start, I make the meat sauce. I brown grass-fed, antibiotic-free ground beef with a large chopped onion and 3 minced garlic cloves until the meat is cooked through and the onion is tender. Then I add tomato paste, oregano, basil, salt, pepper, and a pinch of ground cinnamon, along with 2 cups of water. Some pastichio purists do not add the cinnamon but prefer to sprinkle the very top of the dish with ground nutmeg. I do it the way my sweet mama taught me, though, and she used cinnamon. Let that simmer until the flavors are melded and the liquid is absorbed.
Next boil the pasta. Then make the sauces. The “thin” sauce, as my sweet mama called it, is butter, flour, milk and an egg. I will always remember watching her make the roux and her telling me that you know when the roux is done by the way it smells: nutty and browned. Whatever that smells like, I thought, but now I know. I just know. After the roux is sufficiently nutty & brown smelling, in goes the milk and you whisk like your life depends on it. No lumps! No scorching! Don’t even think about turning away or mixing yourself a cocktail. Whisk! Whisk!
Once the “thin” sauce has thickened (again, you’ll just know when it’s thick enough, even though it’s a thin sauce, she used to say), temper the egg and again whisk, whisk, whisk, then whisk some more. No curdling! No clumping!
When the “thin” sauce is done and the pasta has cooked, start assembling: cooked pasta in a buttered casserole dish, then top with the “thin” sauce. Top that with copious amounts of Romano cheese. When in doubt, add more cheese.
Then get back to the stove to make the “thick” sauce. Same ingredients as the “thin” sauce but different proportions. Ditto the Olympic whisking. I always wonder why every Greek lady I ever met had bat-wing arms, even with all that whisking. You’d think they’d have Michelle Obama arms, but they probably ate the finished product and didn’t pump iron. I’m in pretty good shape and pump iron regularly, yet this Olympic whisking wears me out. I seriously need a cocktail (maybe two) when it’s done.
So, once the “thick” sauce is done and you’ve had a cocktail (or two), it’s time to add the meat sauce to the pasta/”thin” sauce/cheese layer. Spread it on thick and pat it down lovingly. There is a lot of love in Greek food.
I was so tired from all the whisking, I forgot to take a photo of the meat layer lovingly patted into place, so imagine it in your mind. While you do that, I’m mixing another cocktail.
Meat sauce lovingly in place means it’s time for the “thick” sauce. But before you put it on top of the meat sauce, whisk in more cheese. Yes, more cheese. And yes, more whisking. Which means yes, more cocktails.
So, “thick” sauce is made even thicker with more cheese and is glopped on top of the meat layer.
(I’m pretty sure my sweet mama never glopped a single thing in her kitchen, but that’s how it goes down in mine.)
Once the “thick” sauce is in place, sprinkle the top with more cheese. Then add a little more. You can never have too much.
And here’s where I get in big trouble. Here’s where I risk having my Greek heritage revoked.
There. I confessed. The secret is out.
If you’ve seen the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” you know what I mean. My Greek relatives shake their head and cluck their tongues at my meatless ways.
It’s ok. Really. It is. I may not eat meat, but I make good cocktails.
Once the pastichio is assembled (whether meaty or meat-free), there’s one more step, and this is one I cannot abide. Another reason for having my heritage revoked I’m sure, but I just can’t do it. The final step is to spread melted butter over the top of the “thick” sauce and the last layer of cheese. Can’t do it. Even though I burned at least 3,000 calories just from the whisking, I can’t do it.
It’s Easter, a bittersweet holiday for me. Spring is hard. My parents’ wedding anniversary is in March, my mom’s birthday in April, followed a few days later by my first dog Maddy’s birthday, then Mother’s Day in May. Celebrating these milestones without my mom is hard, to say the least. The advertising blitz leading up to Mother’s Day depresses the hell out of me each year, and somehow the loss of my own mama always intrudes on the celebration with my kids. She made every holiday fun, and subsequent family gatherings are sorely incomplete without her and her cooking. We always did Easter Greek-style, with roast leg of lamb, roasted potatoes or minestra (Greek pasta), pastichio (Greek lasagna), a huge Greek salad, homemade Greek Easter bread, and of course, coconut cream pie and the annual bunny cake. This year we’ll be celebrating at my cousin Susie’s house, Greek-style, and I’ll drink a toast to my sweet mama. I think she’d approve of this year’s bunny cake.
The cake is a tradition dating back to when I was a kid (which was a long time ago). My mom saw the idea in a magazine and made it every year. I’ve started the tradition with my kids, and now Payton has outgrown it enough to only consult on whether the frosting tastes ok. He’s come a long way from the little guy in the striped t-shirt, trying so hard to balance as many eggs as his little mitts could gather. Macy is chief cake decorator now, and has had exclusive creative license over the bunny cake the last few years. The look of the cakes varies slightly over the years as Macy chooses the decorations. The 2009 version was a study in understatment and pastels.
Last year’s cake was a bit more candy-oriented, with Hershey’s kisses for eyes and a licorice nest for a nose. His bowtie was heavily crusted with assorted sprinkles and jimmies, and the creative genius behind this version clearly had to jump in the pool after her decorating was done.
Today also marks 18 years of wedded bliss. On this day 18 years ago, I said “I do,” and Trevor said “I do, too” and luckily he agreed on the “in sickness and in health part,” because we’ve seen more than our fair share of the former. Hope to have nothing but the latter from here on out.
We marked the momentous occasion by waking to the sounds of the kids tearing apart the cellophane wrapping of their Easter baskets. The Easter Bunny had to break tradition and deliver a pre-pack instead of the usual carefully-chosen assortment of each child’s personal favorites tucked among the fake green stringy grass, along with a few trinkets and treasures. This year, the EB copped out, but I don’t think anyone but me noticed.
In typical form, Trevor had a gift and a card for me, and I had nothing for him to celebrate 18 years together. I’m not the most sentimental, and you wouldn’t have to look hard to find someone more romantic than me, which is a crying shame. Luckily, what I lack in mooshiness, I make up for in pluck and resourcefulness and always have a gift stashed somewhere. Like a rabbit out of a hat, I pulled a new Adidas tennis shirt & shorts out of the gift closet for him, and wrapped it up real quick like as if it was my intention all along. The card must be lost in the mail. Really. Sigh.
No, that’s not the hairstyle Trevor chose for his big day, but the gusty wind blowing his thick and luxurious mop. See, there was a tornado the day of our wedding, and no, Smarty Pants, it wasn’t a sign of things to come. Nice try. Sadly, 7 people were killed and 100 were injured by this storm, and no, it had nothing to do with our union. Strictly coincidence and having absolutely no significance for poor Trevor.
There was a Whataburger next to the church we were married in, and while the girls were primping in the bride’s suite, the boys snuck next door for a bite to eat. The photographer caught them in the act, and we have Trevor’s killer tornado hair on record. Sweet.
Here’s the title page of our wedding album, lovingly inscribed in by #1 neighbor and wedding coordinator Susan Postier. Notice the red and black scribbles? That would be Macy, as a toddler. She had an evil streak that incited her to leave her mark on everything from walls to brand-new furniture to wedding albums. Nothing was safe from the wrath of our pint-sized Pollock. Instead of being mad at her and thinking the album was ruined, I treasure it all the more because it has Macy’s signature on it. She wasn’t at the wedding, of course, and isn’t in any of the photos, but she made herself a part of it by stamping it with her signature scribble.
Here’s a much younger version of me with my parents. At the time, I was wondering how many more photos I had to endure, and was probably wondering when I could get to the reception and get my drink on. Now of course I would give my right arm to have a few more days with my mom here, my family intact. She was so excited about that pale pink dress, and had even taken a Jazzercise class to make sure she would fit into it, which was a big deal for her because my sweet mama didn’t like to sweat.
Trevor and his mom, Jody, who is amazingly artistic and designed and sewed her dress herself. The photo doesn’t do it justice, as the color was more teal-green and the intricate hand-beading (sewn on in the car as they drove to the wedding from Kentucky) was beautiful.
Trevor and his brothers. Marrying into a family of 4 boys was a bit of a shock for me, having just one sibling myself. I learned about “the Hicks pass” in which one empties the dish of whatever food item the other brother requests one passes at the dinner table, and that if you want more mashed potatoes, you better get ’em on the first go-round. Trevor and I thought we might like to have 4 kids ourselves…until Macy came along, that is, and we decided 2 was plenty.
My brother and me. The next time we’d be formally dressed and in a pulpit together would be our mom’s funeral, 13 years later. He wanted to speak about her and asked if I’d stand with him. I agreed but said I didn’t think I would speak. He lovingly prepared a speech about what an incredible mom she was, and how he didn’t realize until he became a parent himself just how sacrificing and unconditionally loving she was. He cited examples of homemade treats in his lunchbox, endless rides for him and his teammates to baseball and football games, and the fact that his uniforms were always clean, no matter how many games a week were scheduled. A beautiful tribute to an amazing mother. Yet, he was overcome with emotion when it came time to read it, and I found my voice and pitched in to deliver his words. I think our sweet mama, a former speech & drama teacher, would have been proud of our presentation.
The last photo in the bride’s suite before the we got that show on the road. The photographer wanted to get an artsy shot of my reflection in the mirror as my mom adjusted my veil, and I nearly lost it just before walking down the aisle. If only I’d known then that my time with her would be short and all the more precious.
Anyone who knew my sweet mama can imagine her muttering under her breath as my brother led her down the aisle. She was probably telling him that he was walking too fast or too slow, or maybe she was talking to herself about what so-and-so was wearing, or wondering if she’d made enough baklava to go around at the reception. Her brain was always running full-speed, and it was usually focused on other people and their needs.
My dad looks mighty serious in this photo, and I vaguely recall him telling me it wasn’t too late to change my mind. I’m sure he was kidding. He led by example for all of my formative years, and when it came time to give his baby girl away, he threw a mighty fine party.
My cousin Susie and her baby, Melissa, who is now a senior in high school. It’s official–I’m old.
Happy Easter, everyone, and happy anniversary, Trevor. Now let’s go cut that bunny cake!