Pastichio “vegani”, layered pasta casserole
Pastichio is the Greek answer to lasagna: layers of tube-shaped pasta with a savory filling and topped with a creamy bechamel-style sauce and baked to golden perfection. It’s served as an entree and as a typical Greek holiday or party food. This “vegani” version uses a filling of mushrooms and perhaps roasted eggplant, and the topping is a creamy blend of silken tofu and soaked unroasted cashews.
The pasta used in pastichio is a long, smooth hollow tube-shaped pasta. This Greek specialty pasta may be difficult to locate outside of Greek markets, but if you’re so lucky to visit such a place, look for the brand Misko and grab a bag of “Macaroni #2”. If not, Italian “bucatini” pasta is a close second, with smoothly textured penne tubes coming in at third. A very distant forth would be elbow macaroni, but I feel it makes the pastichio too mac n’ cheese for my tastes.
Like the original pastichio, this dish is prepared in stages and probably is best reserved for weekends or a luxuriously long evening in the kitchen; if you’re the sort that likes to unwind after a workday in the kitchen (and I know you’re out there), then this is the project for you. A complex dish like pastichio is best served with a simple green salad.
Tip: My favorite version of the filling is the variation that includes the eggplant. I’ve mentioned it as optional because this recipe has enough steps as is, but if you love eggplant and are going to bother making a mess in the kitchen anyway why not go the extra eggplant distance?
Silken almost-bechamel topping
- 1 cup unroasted, unsalted cashews
- 1 pound silken tofu, drained
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg, plus additional nutmeg for sprinkling
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 10 ounces brown (cremini) mushrooms
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
- One large onion, peeled and finely minced
- 2/3 cup dry red wine
- 1 pound roma tomatoes, core and seeds removed, diced fine
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- A few twists of freshly cracked pepper
- 1 pound uncooked Greek tube-shaped pasta, Italian bucatini or smooth penne pasta
- 4 tablespoons vegan margarine
- 3 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups plain soy milk, divided
- 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Prepare the topping first: cover the cashews in at least 2 inches of hot water and let soak for 1 hour or overnight until soft and plump and then drain away the water. Puree the cashews with the remaining topping ingredients in a blender or food processor until smooth and creamy, scrapping the sides of the blender jar occasionally with a rubber spatula. Depending on how powerful your blender is this may take 1 to 4 minutes. Set topping aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Remove the stems from the mushrooms, slice caps in half and dice the halves into small 1/2 inch pieces. In a large 12 inch skillet over medium heat fry the chopped onion with the olive oil for 4 minutes to soften, then stir in garlic and fry for 1 minute. Stir in mushrooms and cook for 6 minutes, stirring occasionally until the mushrooms have reduced in bulk and most of their liquid has been absorbed. Pour in the red wine and add the chopped tomatoes, bay leaf, oregano, thyme, cinnamon, and salt, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Uncover and remove and discard the bay leaf. Cook for 2 minutes and taste filling; add more salt if desired and a few twists of freshly cracked black pepper. Turn off heat and set aside.
3. While the mushroom mixture is cooking, bring to a boil 3 quarts of water and stir in 3 tablespoons of kosher salt. Stir in the pasta and cook according to package direction to an al dente consistency (firm and tender to the bite but not mushy), about 7-9 minutes. Drain in a large colander and rinse with plenty of cold water, then set the colander above the sink or large bowl to continue draining as you prepare the sauce.
4. Preheat the oven the 375 degrees and generously rub insides of a 9 x 13 x 2 inch metal or ceramic lasagna pan with plenty of olive oil. In a the pot you cooked the pasta in, melt the margarine over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour, stirring constantly. Cook the flour roux mixture until it’s bubbling and a pale golden color, about 4-6 minutes. Whisk in half of soy milk and continue 1-2 minutes until the sauce thickens, then turn off the heat. Stir in the nutritional yeast, lemon juice and salt. In a cup whisk together the remaining half of the soy milk with the cornstarch and whisk that into the sauce. Add the drained pasta and stir vigorously to coat every piece with the sauce.
5. Firmly press 2/3rds of the pasta evenly on the bottom of the lasagna pan, then evenly top with the mushroom sauce. Spread the remaining half of the pasta over the mushrooms. Depending on the size of the pasta used, the filling may not be completely covered; don’t worry, you’ll be covering everything with another sauce anyway. Now use a rubber spatula to completely spread the cashew tofu topping over the pasta, all the way to the edges of the pan. Sprinkle top of sauce with a big pinch of grated nutmeg and baked uncovered for 26-28 minutes or until the top feels somewhat firm. Now heat the oven broiler on high and brown the pastichio for 3-5 minutes or until dark browned patches form on the top. Those browned spots add that authentic Greek casserole touch!
6. To serve, let the pastichio cool for 15 minutes then slice into squares with a thin sharp knife and use a narrow bent spatula to lift out individual servings. Pasticio is an excellent dish to prepare the day before serving; to reheat cover with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes until the center is hot.
Variation: Eggplant & Mushroom Pastichio
Adding roasted eggplant to the mushroom sauce adds more texture and flavor to the savory filling. Personally I prefer this, but is it an extra step in all already involved process. But if you love roasted bits of tender eggplant it’s worth putting in the extra effort.
Somewhere between making the topping and preparing the filling, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the stems from 1 1/2 pounds of purple globe eggplant eggplant and dice into 1 inch cubes. Toss the eggplant with 3 tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with a little sea salt and roast for 22-24 minutes, stirring occasionally until the edges of the eggplant are browned and the cubes have softened. Turn off the oven, remove the eggplant and let cool.
Stir the roasted eggplant into the mushroom tomato sauce after the final simmer, stirring thoroughly to coat the eggplant with the sauce.