Sunday, November 21, 2010

Meat and pasta, the western Greek way

When people think of Greek food, their minds immediately go to souvlaki, gyros, tzatziki and spanakopita. I've had about a dozen people asking me a recipe for spanakopita the moment I set foot in Holland and since then I've been handing out recipes for my souvlaki left and right. Well, this is partly my own fault. The first dinner party I ever threw in Holland, included souvlaki and two trays of tyropita (Greek cheese pie) so I had it coming.

But seriously, I know that Greek food is known and loved the world over but it is not limited to those dishes. One of the reasons I started this blog was exactly that. To show people how diverse and rich Greek food is and how geography and the influence of neighboring countries have shaped traditional Greek food culture.

Greece is a country with great geographical diversity. Its enormous Mediterranean coastline and vast seas provide ample space for fishermen to catch unique fish and shellfish that have been part of the Greek diet since ancient times. Dishes of the Greek islands like garides saganaki (sautéed prawns in tomato and feta sauce) and grilled fish with ladolemono (olive oil and lemon dressing) are examples of the simplicity that characterizes Greek island food.

Parts of mainland Greece are rocky and mountainous areas where meat is consumed in great amounts, with goat, lamb and veal being the meats of choice. Hearty goat stews, thick-crusted minced veal pies and whole roasted baby lamb, are being prepared in every household all year round—even during the summer months when in other parts of Greece lighter dishes are preferred—and this uncomplicated yet sophisticated style of cooking has been passed on from one generation to the next.

Vegetables, fruit and legumes were always a big part of Greek cuisine but during the Byzantine period, spices and sugar were introduced and with them new techniques and ways of cooking. Politiki cuisine, the type of Greek cooking I grew up with, is a direct descendant of the Byzantine gastronomy.

Greek cuisine has also been influenced by other cultures. In its long history, Greece has been occupied by the Romans and the Venetians, the Ottomans and the Catalans and they all affected the culinary history of Greece, introducing novel ingredients and combinations of flavors.

The Ionian Islands, situated off the west coast of Greece, and particularly Kefalonia, have been greatly affected by the Venetian occupation and their culinary history has been shaped by this north Italian influence. The Venetians were the ones who brought the tomato to the island of Kefalonia and because they consumed large quantities of olive oil, they were responsible for the planting of a great number of olive trees on the island. Olive trees were already grown there since ancient times but the Venetians rewarded with money the islanders who planted more of them all around Kefalonia. Today, quality olive oil is still an important product of the region.

"Kefalonitiki Pastitsada" or, if this is all sounding Greek to you (you know I had to say it at some point), beef (or veal) stew with tomatoes and spices on top of thick, tubular pasta from the island of Kefalonia, is a dish that can be found in most of the Ionian Islands. Each island has its own version, with the one from Kerkyra (Corfu) being the most widely known but to me, the one from Kefalonia is the best.

The last time I was in Kefalonia, in the summer of 2009, I must have eaten at least five different versions of this dish, either in restaurants and tavernas or at friends' homes. That and Kreatopita, a meat pie, were the dishes I craved the most when I returned from Kefalonia. I had to savor them again and the only way to do that was by recreating them myself and coming up with a recipe. So I did.

Pastitsada is an earthy and highly aromatic beef stew with a thick tomato sauce that is packed with flavor, which is imparted by the fresh tomatoes, the garlic and olive oil, the red wine and the addition of a number of spices. It's an unpretentious dish that comforts and soothes the senses. Served always with thick, long tubular pasta like bucatini and a generous sprinkling of Greek mizithra or kefalotyri cheese, it is gratifying, robust and synonymous with pure and authentic Greek flavor.

Kefalonitiki Pastitsada (Greek Beef Stew from Kefalonia with Tomatoes and Spices on top of Tubular Pasta)

Greeks always choose veal over beef, we don’t particularly enjoy the mature flavor of beef, but you can use either.

In traditional Greek cuisine, onions are usually grated in a large grater rather than chopped. This gives a different texture to the resulting sauces, making them thicker and richer. If you can't bother grating the onions in this recipe, you can whiz them in the food processor until they are almost puréed.

The best kind of cheese to sprinkle on top of this dish is the Greek hard cheese called mizithra, a white sheep's and goat's milk cheese. The next best thing would be the Greek kefalotyri, a hard yellow cheese made again from goat's and sheep's milk but if you can't find either one, you can use Pecorino Romano instead.
In the Ionian island of Zakynthos where a friend of my mom's is from, once this stew is almost cooked, they add small cubes of kefalograviera, a Greek yellow hard cheese, which imparts a peppery, umami taste to the dish and is still visible in the sauce since it doesn't melt easily. Needless to say, you don't need to add any more cheese after that.

A glass of Xinomavro, which is a superb Greek red wine variety, would be the perfect pairing for this dish but you can also use a good French Syrah or an Italian Nebbiolo. Use the same wine to enrich the sauce as well.

For those of you who live in The Netherlands, the meat you should use is runderriblap.

This stew needs a total of 2-2 ½ hours cooking.

Yield: 6 servings

1 kg boneless beef or veal stewing steak like chuck steak
100 ml olive olive
2 large onions (about 200 g), grated
3 large cloves of garlic, sliced
4 allspice berries
3 cloves
1/8 tsp nutmeg, grated
1 large cinnamon stick
Pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
50 ml red wine like Xinomavro, Syrah or Nebbiolo
550 g fresh tomatoes, cut roughly into small pieces (or canned diced tomatoes)
70 g tomato paste, good quality
150 ml hot water

700 g long, tubular pasta like Bucatini
100 g butter or vegetable oil shortening

200 g Greek hard Mizithra, Greek Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano Cheese, grated

Special equipment: grater, colander

Take the meat and cut with a knife the large pieces of fat off, leaving a fair amount of fat on in order to flavor the dish. Cut the meat into pieces, about 7 x 6 cm each. Place them on paper towels and pat them dry. This is an important step because the meat will not brown properly if it's damp.

Note on tomatoes: It is preferable to use fresh tomatoes rather than canned. You don't have to skin the tomatoes and it is best if they are firm fleshed.

In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pan or preferably in a Dutch oven, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add enough beef pieces to cover 2/3 of the bottom of the pan (do not overcrowd the pan because the beef will boil rather than brown) and brown the pieces on both sides. Remove pieces from the pan and place them in a bowl. Brown the rest of the beef pieces in the same manner and place them in the bowl.

Add the grated onions to the pan and sauté them on medium heat for about 4 minutes and then add the garlic slices. Sauté them for 1 minute and add all the spices (allspice berries, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon stick) and a pinch of sugar. Stir continuously for 1 minute and then add the browned beef pieces along with the juices accumulated in the bowl you kept them in. Stir well and add some freshly ground black pepper. Turn heat up to medium-high, stir and add the wine, the chopped fresh tomatoes and the tomato paste. Then add the hot water (hot so the cooking process doesn't stop) and stir well. Put the lid on and let it come to the boil. Then lower the heat to the lowest setting and let the meat stew for 1 ½ - 2 hours or until it is tender. Check the meat every 20 minutes or so, stirring it around a bit. About 15 minutes before the meat is done, season with salt. The reason you're adding the salt now is because if you add it at the beginning of the cooking process, the beef will become tough and chewy.

In the end you will have tender, melt-in-the-mouth meat with a rich, thick tomato sauce.

While the meat is cooking, prepare the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil over high heat and add the bucatini. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard), about 8 minutes, or cook to your liking. Drain the pasta in a colander, discarding the water. Melt the butter or vegetable oil shortening in the pot over medium-high heat and when it starts to foam, return the pasta to the pot. Turn off the heat and quickly stir the pasta around so that it gets coated with the butter or shortening.

Serve immediately, dividing the pasta between 6 dishes. Top with the beef stew, adding a generous amount of sauce. Sprinkle with lots of grated kefalotyri, myzithra or pecorino cheese.
Make sure you have lots of crusty bread on the table and some feta cheese.


  1. This is a keeper for sure - will have to make it for my nephew when he learns to eat solid food to celebrate one part of his heritage!

  2. A pasta the Greek way; how wonderful! I love the sauce.

  3. Magda, a gorgous dish and I do like this varied Pastitsada from Keffalonia. Cinnamon makes sauces so warm, inviting.

  4. This is definitely a family favorite and the chilly weather of fall called for it a couple of weeks ago when I too made some kokkinisto with makaronia. I really like the allspice and nutmeg you've added as I only used cinnamon and star anise. Will try it this way next time for sure!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your post - I love learning about the background to recipes and cuisines and this was really enlightening. My Mother-in-law is of Greek descent and the recipes she has passed to me do not include souvlaki!

  6. The pastitsada sounds delicious, pure comfort food. Lovely post in general but my only objection is the reference you have as to olive trees planted by the Venetians in Kefallonia. That may be the case but so as not to give false impressions that there were no olive trees and were introduced by the Venetians, whilst the opposite happened. We all know that olive trees grew in Greece thousands of years b.C. as there are references by Homer, the Minoans etc.

  7. Sounds a lovely combination of spices. Are the allspice berries to be added whole?
    I have a small pot and was concerned to read a caution 'remove allspice berries from food before serving' after googling I discovered they contain eugenol that may promote cancer growth! On the other hand they do have many health benefits. I guess it's much like anything else- use in moderation.
    Can't wait to try your recipe- thanks I love Greek food.

  8. This looks so yummy!!!!!!!!!!!!


  9. What a wonderful sounding stew. A great winter dish. I am excited to try this. i bet it makes the house smell delicious!! Great photos too.

  10. Magda - sounds wonderful! Mark used to get a Greek stew that he loved called Rosa's Beef Stew and I imagine this might be the recipe. I can't wait to try it this winter! David

  11. This was such an interesting post, I loved learning about the different regional Greek cuisine, I skipped back and re-erad your post about your grandfather and felt like I had read a part of a novel by the end of it. I was also suprised to see the use of that pasta that so much resembles bucatini. You live and you learn...

  12. So surprised about this - well relatively :)
    It just reminds us that modern barriers are to be taken with a grain of salt and the sea actually joins people, it does not divide them.

    In Veneto (the mainland region in Italy just close to Venice) nowadays it is prepared a traditional dish called 'pastizada', very very similar but made more often than not with ... horse. I know - weird Italian habit of eating horses!

    I also ate very similar dish, made with beef, all over the Adriatic coastline in Croatia, in the former Venetian area of influence. In both these versions tomato is scaled down to almost nothing and the spicy sauce is mainly onions and wine and meat juices.

  13. Belinda — that would be great.

    Nisrine — thanks.

    Peter M — cinnamon is perhaps my favorite spice. In stews it is amazing!

    Maria — if you do try it let me know what you thought!

    Sally — I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

    Ivy — I wouldn't want to give that impression to those who don't know a lot about Greek food history. I rephrased it ;)

    A Dutch Brit — yes, they should be added whole. I've never heard of anything bad associated with these berries. Well, the only reason I can think of about removing them from your food before serving it, is so that you don't accidentally bite into them and chip a tooth ;) Do try this dish, you're gonna love it!

    Nicole — yes it does make the house smell incredible :)

    David — thanks. I've never heard the name of that stew you're mentioning.

    Nuts about food — yes, that kind of pasta is used in various Greek dishes and is very similar to bucatini.

    Caffettiera — horse meat huh? In Greece it is not very popular. Yes, there are great similarities between Greece and Italy and they are not confined only to food :)

  14. Yum! The only thing better than a big bowl of pasta, is a big bowl of pasta with a big piece of beef on top :) Love this!


  15. such a great comforting dish, I love it!

  16. This looks so hearty and tasty. I love the tubular pasta, such great texture.

  17. Magda, Your posts are always delightful and informative---this beef and pasta dish looks like such a delicious departure from what we are so used to where I live. Very sophisticated layering of spices in this rustic dish---I think this would be most welcome, after all the Thanksgiving turkey and fixings that we will be eating over the next few days.

  18. Magda

    this stew is my idea of comfort and deliciousness; with the wines you are suggesting I can't think of a better way to spend an evening especially by a cozy fire!

  19. Magda, this looks so good. Thanks for the summary too on the geographical differences in Greek cuisine. Food history is fascinating - and very blurred but I find it really interesting.

  20. Magda,

    I just stumbled across your blog and am so glad I did! Your photos are gorgeous and your recipes are mouthwatering--I've already put half a dozen of them at the top of my cooking list!

    I spent the last two years living in Hawaii, where I had two delicious byob Greek restaurants in walking distance from my apartment. Sometimes I'd go to both in one weekend--they were so delicious. With no Greek restaurants near my new apartment, your recipes are going to help me get my Greek food fix, and they look even tastier :)

  21. We are not Martha — you're right! :)

    M, Katie, Lorraine — thank you

    Nancy — I'm sure it would be!

    Taste of Beirut — thanks

    JayP — I find it fascinating as well!

    Christina — thanks and welcome

  22. Great recipe! It looks delicious!

  23. Sometimes the simpler the dish is...the better it tastes! Looks so comforting!

  24. Annoying how 'ethnic' food gets categorized. For example, I'm of Indian background and so people in my home country (the U.S.) think we eat tikka masala, tandoori and naan - which I never eat unless in a restaurant.
    The pasta, by the way, looks great, and I'm glad you chose to share 'real' Greek food :)

  25. this is a great recipe - i have never made a pastitsada as its known in the ionian islands, so i think this will be my weekend meal; i have a problem with greek beef, as it's always too fresh and not tender enough, but i am still looking forward to trying this - i'll post some photos as soon as i make it

  26. This looks excellent! I love the spice combination.

  27. This recipe is so simple, but looks absolutely stunning and hearty! As the weather as recently turned incredibly cold, it would be the perfect alternative to beef stew. Thanks for the recipe!

  28. OMG. I just want to reach in through the monitor and eat the meat with my hands. LOL. Looks so rich and hearty and delicious. You can always tell something is going to taste great when it has that silky, shiny, beautiful sauce coating it. Love it.

  29. thank you so mucn for this recipe. a friend of mine had mentioned i should cook pastitsada for my last dinner party because i am always looking for out of the way/odd greek recipes that the average person does not know about...i used your recipe and this came out FANTASTIC!!! i think the secret is the use of the grated onions (which i basically pulverized in the food processor :-)) i cooked mine the nite before and it cooked for over 7 hours and the meat just fell apart...thanks again

  30. Hi Demetrios! I'm so glad you liked the dish. It is one I make very often and it's always a hit.
    7 hours? Wow, that must have been some tender meat!

  31. This is a Truly Great Page! Bravo!

  32. Wow this is exactly the same recipe that my Yiayia handed down to me apart from the all spice berries (what are they please) xx

  33. My childhood best friend Tracy (Anastasia) was greek and her mother used to cook this for me all the time because she knew I loved it. I have searched high and low all over the internet for this recipe. Thank you so much for sharing.