Monday, April 25, 2011

Pastitsio: A Delicious Greek Pasta Casserole

At any restaurant in Greece, you can find pastitsio. Pastitsio is a baked pasta casserole with a meat and tomato sauce and covered with a béchamel sauce. I clearly remember having pastitsio before going gluten-free and it was so good.

Pastitsio sounds simple and basic, but it can be very difficult to find in most American-Greek restaurants, let alone a gluten-free version. Now, when I travel back to Greece with my husband to visit his family, he explains my gluten-free needs in Greek while ordering for me at restaurants. More times than not, the Greeks respond, “She cannot eat pasta or bread?! What can she eat?” But I have never gone hungry in Greece.

More Greek dishes than not are naturally gluten-free. However, there are a handful of traditional Greek dishes that I occasionally long for that are filled with gluten. Greek cuisine is similar to Italian in regards to having standardized recipes that they have been using for hundreds to thousands of years. One of which is pastitsio.The gluten-free version is no more difficult to make than the standard version. The key as always is sourcing the best ingredients. I cannot stress the importance of using the best gluten-free pasta possible. My favorite is Italian corn pasta; Le Veneziane is the brand I stock up on. If you have a corn sensitivity, rice pasta works but it is imperative not to overcook, cooking to right at al dente.

Pastitsio is traditionally made having a bottom layer of tubular pasta (bucatini, rigatoni, penne); topped with a layer of cheese to bind it all together; a middle layer of meat tomato sauce with oregano, cinnamon, and egg whites; plus another layer of pasta; and a top layer of an béchamel sauce with cheese and eggs known as an enriched Mornay sauce in the culinary world. During Easter, most Greeks serve pastitsio with the traditional lamb spread. That can be slightly hedonistic. A perfect side for pastitsio is salad: a traditional Greek Salad or a spring greens salad.

For the meat sauce:
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, chopped finely
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped finely
  • 2 pounds ground sirloin
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 tablespoon Greek oregano, or more to taste
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ cup white wine
  • One 14-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • One 6-ounce can tomato paste
  • 2 egg whites

For the béchamel sauce:
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter
  • ½ cup potato starch
  • 4 cups hot milk
  • Salt, white pepper, and nutmeg, to taste
  • 1 cup grated cheese (Italian blend)
  • 2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks, lightly beaten

For the pasta:
  • 2 boxes (about 1 pound) of gluten-free Italian corn pasta (like bucatini, rigatoni, penne)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup grated cheese (Italian blend)

For the Meat Sauce:

Heat the olive oil in large skillet and sweat the onions with the garlic over medium heat until almost translucent. Add in the ground meat and sauté until browned. Add the remaining ingredients except for the egg whites. Let the sauce simmer for about 10-15 minutes, while tasting the sauce to seasoning. I always add in a lot more oregano than called for. This sauce is best when it is seasoned assertively. Turn off the heat and stir occasionally until cooled, but not too hot that it would cook the egg whites. Stir in the 2 egg whites thoroughly, reserving those egg yolks for the béchamel.

For the béchamel:

Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the potato starch and whisk for about 1 minute. Turn the heat down to low/simmer. Add the hot milk all at once and whisk until the sauce is thickened and smooth. Add salt, ground white pepper, and ground nutmeg to taste. Remember, there should be only a hint of nutmeg. Remove from heat and add in about 1 cup of grated cheese and stir until smooth. Allow to cool slightly with occasional stirring. Add in the slightly beaten 2 egg yolks plus 2 whole eggs into the béchamel and mix until it is all completely incorporated.

For the pasta:

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add in all the pasta at once. Cook with stirring occasionally, especially at the beginning, to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente, tender yet firm. Drain well and return to pot. Add in butter and stir in.

To serve, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray a very large and deep pan (lasagna pan or disposable aluminum pan) well with non-stick spray. Evenly distribute half of the pasta in the bottom. Sprinkle about half a cup of grated cheese evenly on top. Then evenly pour the meat sauce as the next layer. Followed by the remaining pasta. Pour the béchamel over the top evenly. Sprinkle the remaining half a cup of shredded cheese on top. Bake for approximately one hour or until the top is lightly browned. Remove from oven and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes before cutting and serving.

Details: Serves 10-12; Total time: 2 hours

-Erin Swing
The Sensitive Epicure


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Chocolate Chip Walnut Muffins with Steusel Topping

Quickbread / muffins were the challenge for April's Gluten-Free Ratio Rally. (On Twitter, search #gfreerally.)

Every month, the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally, a collaborative group of gluten-free bloggers, puts their on take a classic baked good. The premise resides in the ratio of weight of the main ingredients: flour, liquid, eggs, and fat. Michael Ruhlman published Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking last year. In Ratio, he demonstrates that all basic recipes can be broken down into ratios based on weight. As a scientist, I know from much experimentation, cooking by weight (scaling) is the best way to achieve the best and consistent results. Especially when it comes to gluten-free baking. The densities (=weight/volume) of flours vary drastically from different type of flour to different manufacturer. Following a recipe using volumetric measurements (cups) could potentially lead to a small failure unless using exactly the same flour and maker than the person did writing the recipe. No one likes failures. Failures in the gluten-free world mean having to throw away expensive ingredients. No one wants that.

Ruhlman's ratio for basic quickbread / muffins is 2 : 2 : 1 : 1 / flour : liquid : egg : fat. The difference between a quickbread and a muffin is the shape and size. A quickbread is in form of a loaf, whereas a muffin is a like a cupcake shape. Another difference between the two lies in the cooking temperature; the loaf requires more time consider it has much more mass. Quickbread is called that because it uses chemical leavening to rise, meaning it is risen by an acid-base reaction. In this reaction, the products are carbon dioxide gas (air pockets) and organic salts. There are two basic ways to use chemical leaving: use acidic products (buttermilk, vinegar, citrus juices, etc.) with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate); and baking powder (1:1/sodium bicarbonate base:tartaric acid). The reaction starts immediately upon mixing with water and continues while baking; therefore, the dough must get baked shortly after mixing. Quickbreads require immediate baking or the reaction ends and looses the lift before baking. Baking powder consists of a perfect balance of a protected acid of tartaric acid in form of a salt and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) that react once it hits moisture. Another by-product of this acid-base reaction is salt, thus the salt in the recipe is minimal. Of course, quickbreads can be either savory or sweet. The possibilities are endless.

I made chocolate chip walnut muffins with a streusel topping. All of those chocolate chips are hiding inside like a secret treat. I saw many folks from the rally making fruit based variations. Which lead me down the basic chocolate chip path. Add in some walnuts for more character and nutrition. Just so old school. One of my favorite accoutrements I learned in culinary school was a good streusel topping, the yummy sugary nutty crumblies. Usually used for fruit muffins, but why not use it with chocolate chips? I found that I had to modify the ratio to make it work best by reducing the liquid (it was way too liquid) and reducing the fat (oil was leaching out). Yet, eggs prove to be absolutely critical here; anything less than a 1 ratio, lead to a crumbling mess. My recipe ended closer to a 2 : 1.5 : 1 : 0.8 / flour : liquid : egg : fat ratio.

Streusel topping:
  • 55 grams | 1/2 stick butter
  • 38 grams | 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 30 grams | 3 tablespoons brown sugar
  • pinch salt
  • pinch cinnamon
  • 50 grams | 1/2 cup roasted walnuts
  • 40 grams | 1/3 cup blanched almond flour
  • 70 grams | 1/2 cup brown rice flour
  • 85 grams | 2/3 cup blanched almond flour
  • 80 grams | 1/2 cup brown rice flour
  • 170 grams | 1 cup tapioca flour
  • 160 grams | 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 20 grams | 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 4 grams | 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 100 grams | 1 cup roasted walnuts, chopped
  • 237 grams | 1 cup milk
  • 113 grams | 1 stick butter
  • 9 grams | 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 100 grams | 2 large eggs, room temperature, slightly beaten
  • 225 grams | 1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
Scale all ingredients, place into processor, and process just until it is crumbling and broken up. Put aside.

Preheat oven to 375F. In a large bowl, combine the flours, brown sugar, baking powder, salt, and walnuts and mix until uniform. Microwave the milk until hot, about 1 minute. Pour into flour mixture and mix well. Microwave the butter until melted, about 4o seconds. Add into flour mixture and mix well. If needed, allow to cool if hot to touch before adding vanilla and eggs. Add in the vanilla, followed by the eggs, mixing well until homogeneous. Lastly, add in the chocolate chips and stir well. Portion out (I use a scooper) into a lined or sprayed muffin tin, filling about 3/4 full. Then crumble some streudel on top and gently push into batter to stick. Bake for about 25 minutes. Makes about 18 regular size muffins.

Thank you Silivana for hosting the Gluten-Free Ratio Rally this month.

For more Gluten Free Ratio Rally quick bread and muffin recipes check out these participants of the rally and (if you are on Twitter) follow the thread #gfreerally:

-Erin Swing
The Sensitive Epicure

Monday, April 4, 2011

Gluten-Free Gnocchi with Tomato Sauce

While working at Fundación Alicia in Spain, one of our last duties as an intern was to make a dish that is typical of where we live — that was an intimidating task considering that two of the staff were elBulli chefs. My Italian roommate and fellow intern, Michela, wanted to do a trial run of her dish, gnocchi, at the apartment. Again, we cooked side-by-side, as I made the gluten-free version of her gnocchi.

She explained that gnocchi is a very basic ratio: 1 kilogram of potatoes to 100 grams of flour to 1 egg with a generous pinch of salt. While working at a restaurant in Bologna, she made 10 kilogram batches of gnocchi on a regular basis. (That is 22 pounds: a lot of gnocchi.) The secret to perfect gnocchi, she confided, was that half the potatoes should be starchy (russets/Idaho) and the other half waxy (red). The flour has very little impact in this recipe, and I figured that potato flour made the most sense to use since it's naturally gluten-free. It makes so much sense that I wonder why all potato gnocchi is not made with potato flour.

For her presentation, Michela made sauces in colors of the Italian flag for the gnocchi — red tomato sauce, white gorgonzola sauce, and green pesto. This presentation does make a statement for a special occasion, but I wanted to simplify the sauces to just one. Tomato sauce is so easy to make, delicious, and still makes for a special dinner. Once you try this recipe, you will never go back to jarred pasta sauce. Though gnocchi do require significant work, it is a great way to show your love for someone through good food.


For the tomato sauce:
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced fine
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • One 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • ½ teaspoon salt, to taste
  • Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
  • Dried chile flakes, to taste (optional)
  • 10 fresh basil leaves, cut chiffonade (very thin strips), save some for garnish
  • Grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, for garnish

For the gnocchi:
  • 500 grams (about 1 pound) russet or Idaho potatoes, peeled and cut medium dice
  • 500 grams (about 1 pound) red potatoes
  • Salt
  • 1 large egg, room temperature, lightly beaten
  • 100 grams (about 1 cup) potato starch, plus more for dusting


For the tomato sauce:

In a wide pan, with low walls, sauté the garlic and olive oil over low-medium heat until aromatic. Add in the canned tomatoes. Bring up temperature to medium. Add in salt, pepper, and chile flakes. Stir occasionally. Once the tomatoes start simmering, use a potato masher to break down the tomatoes into a smooth yet hardy texture. Allow to cook, simmering and stirring occasionally, thickening for about 20-30 minutes. Add in most of the basil, reserving some for garnish. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Meanwhile, prepare the gnocchi.

For the gnocchi:

Place the potatoes in a large pot of salted water. Cook over high heat until fork tender, about 10-15 minutes. Drain through colander and immediately run potatoes through food mill or ricer (in batches, as needed) onto a large jelly roll pan. Make sure that the potatoes are evenly distributed in order to cool off efficiently. (This prevents heavy gnocchi.) Allow the potatoes to cool to room temperature.

Then place the potatoes onto a clean working surface. Make a small well and add the beaten egg with a small amount of the potato starch. Start worked with your clean hands and knead the dough until evenly distributed. Add more potato starch gradually, while kneading, until dough is still wet, but not sticky. Form the dough into a large, smooth ball. (At this time, dust the jelly roll pan for a place to store the cut and dusted gnocchi.)

Using a bench scraper or a butter knife cut a ½-inch slice of the dough and roll into a rod about ¾ inch in diameter and dust with potato starch. Cut the rod of dough into small pieces, using the first joint of your index finger as a guide to ensure consistent sizing. Transfer to jelly roll pan, and make sure the entire surface of the gnocchi are lightly dusted. Repeat until all of the dough are in the form of gnocchi. Have a large pot of salted water boiling and add in the gnocchi. Once the gnocchi have risen to the surface, they are done, about 2-4 minutes. Transfer with a spider to your pot of tomato sauce, gently fold, garnish, and serve immediately.

Serves: 6-8 people

Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

The gnocchi can be made ahead and kept frozen. To do this, freeze the jelly roll pan of gnocchi until frozen solid. Transfer to an airtight container for storing. Have a pot of boiling salted water ready to put the frozen gnocchi in.

-Erin Swing
The Sensitive Epicure