Sephardi pasta casseroles

This effortless kosher pastitsio is as delicious as the original.

lasagna 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
lasagna 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A famous Greek casserole known as pastitsio calls for pasta layered with a meaty tomato sauce, then topped with a cheese sauce or cheese-based custard. Obviously this doesn't work for kosher cooks. Over the generations Sephardi cooks have come up with new interpretations of the dish. A common solution is to create two versions of the casserole - one meat and one dairy. Suzy David, author of Sephardi Cooking (in Hebrew), calls her meat adaptation macaroni moussaka. It's made simply of cooked macaroni layered with a ground beef and tomato sauce, then baked until the top browns. Esther Benbassa, author of Cuisine Judeo Espagnole (in French), makes a more elaborate casserole. She layers cooked spaghetti in a baking dish with a sauce of sauteed onions, ground beef, chopped tomatoes, salt and paprika. She doesn't give up on the custard idea or the rich topping. To create a custard-like effect, she mixes the spaghetti with beaten eggs, and instead of cheese sauce, she tops the casserole with potato puree mixed with egg, salt and paprika, which bakes to a smooth, golden topping. Her dairy version features pasta mixed with three cheeses - white cheese, sheep's milk cheese and grated yellow cheese, then a sprinkling of more grated cheese on top. Benny Saida, author of Food from the Balkans (in Hebrew), makes his dairy pastitsio even richer, combining the pasta, eggs and cheeses (feta, tzfatit and kashkaval) with a white sauce enhanced with cream. As much as I love pasta with cheese, omitting the meat from pastitsio yields merely a richer rendition of American macaroni and cheese. I prefer to add a meat-like layer by utilizing one of the meat alternatives available. Tofu is a satisfying substitute for meat, tastes good with tomato sauce and matches well with cheese. Another pastitsio I like is inspired by Saida's Ottoman pasta casserole, which features pasta layered with fried eggplant and tomato sauce. If you add cheese sauce, you'll have an eggplant pastitsio. If you would like to make a parve pastititsio, Robin Robertson, author of Vegan Planet, has an intriguing, although somewhat involved, idea. For her mushroom-soy pastitsio, she layers cooked pasta with a tofu, mushroom and tomato sauce, then crowns it with grated vegan cheese and a puree of soft tofu and soy milk. The resulting casserole is flavorful and satisfying, and is made entirely of plant foods. KOSHER GREEK PASTA CASSEROLE In this rich party dish, the cheesy pasta alternates with layers of tomato tofu sauce flavored, like the meat sauce in traditional Greek pastitsio, with red wine, oregano and a hint of cinnamon. The dish is enhanced with a custard that moistens it throughout. The casserole makes a complete meal. All you need is a fresh green salad, and a fruit for dessert. You can layer the pasta and sauce ahead in the baking dish, and keep it, covered, 1 day in refrigerator. Bring it to room temperature before continuing, then add the egg-milk mixture and bake the casserole. Tofu Tomato Sauce with Red Wine (see recipe below) 450 gr. penne (diagonal-cut macaroni) 4 to 6 Tbsp. olive oil or melted butter 1 to 2 cups finely grated Parmesan or kashkaval cheese Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 4 large eggs 1 cup milk Prepare Tofu Tomato Sauce with Red Wine. Preheat oven to 175º. Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 6 minutes or until nearly tender but firmer than usual, since pasta will be baked. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl. Add olive oil and toss. Add half the grated cheese and toss. Season with salt and pepper. Grease a 33 x 23 x 5 cm. baking dish. Put half of cooked macaroni in prepared dish. Spread tofu tomato sauce on top. Reserve 1⁄4 cup cheese. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Top with remaining pasta. Whisk eggs lightly in a medium bowl. Add milk and a pinch of salt and pepper and whisk just until blended. Pour evenly over mixture. Sprinkle with reserved 1⁄4 cup cheese. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until top begins to brown. Let stand about 10 minutes and serve from baking dish. Makes 6 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast and 1,000 Jewish Recipes. TOFU TOMATO SAUCE WITH RED WINE This sauce is also good spooned over cooked bulgur wheat, brown rice or broiled eggplant. 3 Tbsp. olive oil, vegetable oil or butter 1 large onion, minced 400 to 450 gr. tofu, preferably firm, drained and crumbled 1⁄2 cup dry red wine Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon 1 bay leaf 11⁄2 tsp. dried leaf oregano, crumbled 3 tomatoes, fresh or canned, chopped 3 Tbsp. tomato paste 3 Tbsp. vegetable broth or water Heat oil or butter in a medium saucepan. Add onion and cook over medium-low heat about 10 minutes or until tender. Add tomatoes and saute, stirring, for 2 or 3 minutes. Add wine, salt, pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf and oregano and bring to a simmer. Add tomato paste and broth and mix well. Cover and cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Stir in tofu. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, 10 minutes or until mixture is fairly dry. Discard bay leaf. Taste and adjust seasoning. Makes 6 servings.