"He don't eat no meat? What do you mean he don't eat no meat!?"
It's a line from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" that brings the engagement party to a halt. Horrified faces turn to the xénos (foreigner), Ian Miller. Aunt Voula looks at her niece, the bride-to-be Toula Portokalos, as if to telepathically chastise her: "How can you, a Greek, marry a vegetarian?" Then, the solution comes to Aunt Voula and she pats Ian on the arm. "That's okay," she smiles. "I make lamb."
It's a quote that comes up every now and again when I'm with my wife Melanie's Greek-American side of the family. See, I'm a bit like the Ian Miller in our marriage. My side of the family is small in numbers, though my parents weren't stale like the Millers. Melanie's side can be more eccentric, like the film's Portokalos family, but they didn't fashion their home based on the Acropolis.
And though I'm not a full-fledged vegetarian (I'll sometimes eat meat if I'm a guest in someone's home and they offer), I'm the closest thing to a vegetarian in the family. That means my wife, Melanie, and I make classic Greek dishes without meat. To my mother-in-law, a Greek-American through and through, dishes like moussaka, soutzoukakia, and pastitsio are made with meat. End of story.
Melanie is a bit more flexible. Over the years, we've mostly stopped cooking with meat. It's for a lot of reasons, chief among them the carbon footprint of the meat industry and its generally deplorable treatment of both animals and workers. At this point the knowledge is so commonplace, it's practically its own depressing category of documentaries on Netflix. (If you liked "Animal Tears" then you'll love "Meat Murders.")
This shift in our diet meant figuring out how to make those culturally meaningful dishes sans meat. One of Melanie's first attempts led to this vegetarian pastitsio. Traditionally, it's a layered Greek pasta dish baked in the oven. From bottom to top you've got your bucatini noodles, ground meat, and béchamel sauce. Some call it "Greek lasagna," but I don't think it's so much to ask to learn how to pronounce the dishes we're making (he says, ascending his soapbox).
To replace the ground meat, we use a simple mirepoix (that's fancy French for onions, carrots, and celery) with lentils cooked in vegetable stock seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and oregano. The mirepoix is topped with Greek béchamel sauce, invented by Nikolaos Tselementes, an early-20th-century Greek chef who brought the mother sauce to Greece. Tselementes added an egg yolk to the traditional recipe, modernizing recipes for dishes like moussaka and pastitsio.
In the end, I don't miss the meat. It's still a deliciously creamy, flavorful, and hearty dish that fills my imagination with visions of a Greek taverna on a quiet island or memories of Sunday family dinners with my in-laws and Yiayia sitting next to me, insisting I eat more.
Recipe: Vegetarian Pastitsio
Lentils and noodles
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 4 stalks celery, chopped
- 3 carrots, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 cup brown or green lentils
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 cups homemade or store-bought vegetable stock
- 500 milliliters tomato sauce
- 4 bay leaves
- 1 large fresh basil sprig, chopped, or 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 300 grams bucatini
- 1 large egg white
- 1 teaspoon Parmesan, grated
Greek-style béchamel sauce and assembly
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup plant-based or regular milk
- 1 large egg yolk
- 3 teaspoons Parmesan, grated
- Olive oil, for drizzling
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Lentils and noodles
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, warm the oil. Cook the onion, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 10 minutes, until translucent. Add the celery, carrots, and garlic and cook for about 5 minutes more, until softened and warmed through. Stir in the lentils and continue to cook for about 5 minutes, until the lentils are softened; season with salt and pepper.
- Add the stock, tomato sauce, bay leaves, basil, oregano, and cinnamon. Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover the pan. Simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, until most of the liquid has been reduced. Optional: Add another 1½ teaspoons cinnamon at the end and mix. Remove and discard the bay leaves.
- Meanwhile, in a large pot of generously salted water, cook the bucatini according to the package directions. Drain and arrange in the bottom of a lightly greased 13x9-inch baking dish. Let cool.
- In a small bowl, mix the egg white and Parmesan. Coat the noodles with the egg mixture.
Greek-style béchamel sauce and assembly
- Heat the oven to 350°F. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Slowly add the flour while whisking constantly to form a paste.
- Slowly pour in the milk while constantly whisking. Most recipes say to leave the béchamel sauce over low heat and to keep stirring until it boils. This takes forever and we've never had an issue with cooking over medium-high heat with nondairy milk to speed up the process. Just make sure you stir constantly, especially if you're working over higher heat, to avoid burning. This should take 10 to 15 minutes total. If you opt to use dairy milk, you'll have to use a lower heat to avoid curdling.
- Once the béchamel sauce has a thicker consistency, remove from the heat. Add the egg yolk and Parmesan, stirring constantly; you don't want the heat from the sauce to cook the egg. You should have a creamy, thick sauce at the end.
- Drizzle some oil over the noodles. Top with the lentil mixture (you might have some leftovers, which you can snack on while the dish bakes), followed by the sauce, using a spatula to spread and keep the layers even. Sprinkle some cinnamon and nutmeg on top.
- Bake for about 40 minutes, until golden brown on top. Let cool for at least 10 minutes in order for the pastitsio to keep its shape after cutting.