Saturday, August 28, 2010

Dinner: Macarona bil beshemel (macaroni with beshemel)



This is the simplest dish to put together and probably the one with the least nutrional value. But it is sooooo good. Thinking about it makes me hungry.

This has been a staple in my life since I was young. My parents never made it, but it is one of those dishes that always makes an appearance at any Egyptian dinner table where there are more than five people in attendance. So family-friends' parties, Egyptian functions in the community, visiting family in Egypt. It's almost like putting out a basket of bread; just a little more indulgent.

The pasta, ground meat, and béchamel combination really is not egyptian in origin. But, it is a true testament to Egyptian cuisine adapting to its foreign influences over the years and adapting a new dish to the local palate. In this case, we have two groups of people to thank for this divine meal: the Italians and the Greeks.

I think the thanks really goes to the Italians. They came up with a similar dish called 'pasticcio' meaning mess. It's a mess of pasta. All your pasta thrown into a dish with some sauce and meat and put into an oven. It's the Italian answer to leftover pasta. The Greek version, called 'pastitsio' is closer to the Egyptian version. It has bechemel on top, but uses tomato sauce in the main dish.

To better understand why this dish has become a regular on Egyptian tables, remember that apart from the Greek and Roman occupation of Egypt way back in B.C., the more recent wave of immigrants from those areas was in the late 1800s. The majority of the Greeks and Italians developed strong communities in Alexandria, where the cuisine there has a stronger northern Mediterranean influence than further south. But with time, the dish has been passed on to families and neighbours and friends, and now occupies the hearts of many Egyptians.

The Egyptian element to this dish is in the meat seasoning. It's the same ingredients used to make the middle layer of kobaeba: onions, ground meat (or lamb), all spice and cinnamon. The Greek version often has the same spicing too. But we don't add tomato sauce. That's the main difference. And it's crowned with the goodness that is bechemel.

How can you go wrong?

You can almost compare this dish to the caribbean version of Mac-n-cheese, which is more like a pasta pie. It has the same consistency: a big slab of dense pasta. It's very heavy with cheese and cream. And it's always a staple on dinner tables as a side dish. Funny how the same type of dish can be found in different parts of the world but with the same purpose?

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Total Cooking Time: 1 hour
Yield: 4 persons

INGREDIENTS

pasta and filling:
2 1/2 cups of pasta (rigatoni or something equally big)
2 tablespoons of oil
1 teaspoon of ground allspice
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1 diced onion
1/2 kilo of ground meat (beef or lamb)


béchamel:
2 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of milk
1/4 cup of flour
salt/pepper
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DIRECTIONS

1. Cook pasta
2. While pasta cooks, add oil to frying pan
3. Add onions and meat to pan on high heat
4. Add allspice, cinnamon, salt, pepper to meat
5. Continue cooking on medium heat until meat is unclumped and well-cooked
6. Make sure pasta is al-dente (i.e. not over-cooked)
7. Drain pasta
8. Prepare béchamel sauce (see previous recipe for directions )
9. In casserole dish, add half of pasta
10. Add layer of meat

11. Top with remaining pasta

12. Add béchamel and put in oven

13. Leave in oven until top is golden in colour


And there you have it. This is a rich dish, so I often have a hunk of it with some salad. It also keeps for about a week in the fridge, so you can live off it for some time. mmmm