Monday, September 14, 2009

got me going around

You go to the supermarket, and right away you're faced with thirty herb and spice options.  Various leaves, berries, buds, twigs, and seeds were picked somewhere, dried and ground somewhere, packed into little canisters, and they all serve the same basic purpose -- to add significant amounts of flavor to your food, with insignificant or negligible nutritional effect.  Ounce for ounce, they're many times more expensive than whatever you're putting them on, despite being much cheaper than they used to be.

Cuisines, though they also consist of cooking techniques and often substantial differences in the nature of that "whatever" that the spices are being put on, tend to become associated with a particular palette of spices, to the extent that you can pick up a jar of "Turkish seasoning" or "Tex Mex popcorn seasoning" or what have you.  That supermarket with all those canisters is a recent addition, after all, and it's only in the 21st century that cooks are starting to take advantage of the near-universal availability of ingredients and pair them according to chemical compatibility rather than older, traditional associations.

When it comes to produce and meat, availability has historically been determined mostly by environment -- one reason there are fewer beef recipes in the South, for instance, is because the land is not as suited for grazing, nor was ranching as suitable to the southern economy.  But long before modern transportation brought ground beef to Athens, GA, and Rangpur limes to Nashua, NH, the spice trade was impacting world cuisines by altering palettes not according to environment but in response to trade relationships.  Unlike meat, unlike even the sturdiest root vegetables, spices are almost imperishable -- and their per-ounce price makes them well-suited for importing.

It's a myth that people used spices to conceal spoiled meat.  They used them for the same reason you and I do: they fucking taste good.  And although we can get them cheaper, earlier eras were more profligate with their spicing, ignoring the "sweet/savory" divide that has developed more recently in the way we approach our spice cabinet.  Only in the cheap white sugar era does anyone consider the addition of chile peppers to chocolate a novelty.  Aztecs and conquistadors were combining the two centuries ago -- just as the Italians were adding rosemary to cakes, cooks in the Levant were stewing lamb with dried apricots and cloves, the British were making candied carrots and turnips, and the Greeks were adding cinnamon to meaty tomato sauce for pastitsio.

While some European countries may not have had access to cinnamon until much later, it was found in ancient Greece and Rome thanks to the trade routes from China, which passed through Persia on the way west (Persia's palette is deeply impacted by its position at the center of the East-West trade network).  Its fragrance and durability made it a real workhorse in the kitchen -- far from being limited to sweet applications, in parts of the world it became the most common meat seasoning, much like black pepper in medieval Europe (or today, for that matter) and paprika in Hungary.  (Much of the earlier cinnamon was actually cassia, which is a subject for another time.)

Pastitsio, like lasagna and chili, is one of the world's great casseroles.  The name -- well, you can probably figure the name out for yourself; it means "hodgepodge," the word pastiche having been derived from it (which is clearer in the "Pulp Fiction is a pastiche of pulp fiction" sense than the "The Mighty Ducks is a pastiche of The Bad News Bears" sense).  I imagine the dish is probably older than Greece's use of tomatoes, and was previously made with a brown meat sauce, but I don't know that for sure.

Pastitsio at first glance looks like a simpler lasagna: it's a baked layered dish that includes pasta, meat, tomato, and dairy.  Unlike lasagna's sometimes-frustrating flat noodles, pastitsio traditionally uses tubular pasta of one kind or another.  And very unlike most Italian or Italian-American cooking, cinnamon is a prominent element in the tomato sauce, which is often very strongly seasoned in order to stand up to the richness of the cream sauce.

I don't have a decent photo and I don't want to wait until I get one to blog this, so these are the elements:

Pasta: any tube pasta, cooked and mixed with the bechamel.

Meat sauce: lamb would traditionally be used, ground beef is a common substitute.  I used chopped pulled pork, having bought a pork picnic cheaply at the supermarket -- it's a handy form of protein, because the bone makes such good stock, and you get both cracklings and meat out of the deal, but after a couple pulled pork sandwiches I'm always looking for something else to make.  Now, like chili, the meat sauce for pastitsio invites complexity.  Tomato and cinnamon are traditional.  In addition to that, I used three kinds of oregano (Greek, Cuban, and Mexican, which are actually three separate species, not just varieties of oregano), a cup of Dogfish Head Red & White beer, a little pork stock, onions, sweet Italian peppers, a little allspice, significant amounts of fennel pollen, and just enough chile pepper to create a noticeable heat.

Bechamel: make a white roux of equal amounts of butter and flour, cooking for just a couple minutes; add milk and cook until thick.  Season, in this case, with cinnamon and fennel pollen, and then add shredded Pecorino Romano cheese.  Remove from heat and beat in a few eggs.  Not everyone uses eggs; some use more than a few, so that the top layer of the pastitsio becomes custard-like.

Layers, bottom to top:

A layer of half the pasta mixed with bechamel;

all the meat sauce;

the remaining pasta mixed with bechamel;

the remaining bechamel, if there's any to spare;

additional shredded cheese, such as more Pecorino Romano or a little low-moisture mozzarella.

Crazy good.

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