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Monday, April 1, 2013

Venison Pastitsio with Goat Cheese Bechamel

I really have never liked the traditional Easter dinners. I just am not fond of the big, roast ham. And I am from a ham loving family so most often, Easter dinner seemed like, well, torture. Even when I started having the family over to my home for the holiday, I felt pressure to serve them the ham they loved so much, knowing I was going to end up either cooking another main dish so I had something to eat, or eating only the side dishes. 

Then I met a very dear friend, Becky, who invited all of us over to her house on "Easter Saturday" for many years, and had a tradition of serving lasagna. I used to tease her about it, but there is really something brilliant about it. You can prepare pans and pans of it ahead of time, and you don't have to fuss with it the day of your event. So this year, when I was planning to have guests over the Saturday before Easter, I channeled my inner Becky to come up with a pasta dish I could prepare ahead of time, and still enjoy the evening with my guests. I had seen this dish on television several times, and liked the way it looked, but I wanted to make it my own. 

Pastitsio is a traditional Greek baked pasta dish, served with a cheesy bechamel sauce on top. Usually it is made with a combination of beef and lamb, but since we have a lot of venison, I used that as my protein. The sauce has cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice or some combination, so I played with those in coming up with this version. And I substituted a couple of kinds of goat cheeses to change the flavor profile a bit. It was soooo good, we couldn't stop eating it. I made a chopped salad and some spinach feta bread for the side, but I don't know if my guests cared. The pastitsio was THAT good ! 

Venison Pastitsio with Goat Cheese Bechamel 
For the sauce: 
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, finely diced (approximately 2 cups)
2 pounds venison (any combination of ground meats will work here)
3/4 cup dry red wine
4 cloves garlic, minced 
2 quarts chopped tomatoes 
1 1/2 tablespoons cinnamon 
2 teaspoons dried oregano 
2 teaspoons dried thyme 
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 
1 teaspoon nutmeg 
2 teaspoons salt 
1 teaspoon black pepper 
1 pound medium shell pasta 
1/2 pound hard goat cheese, shredded
In a large dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, and saute until translucent. Crumble in ground meat, and cook until completely browned, stirring frequently to make sure it is nicely crumbled. Add wine and spices, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, until the sauce is thick and bubbly. Turn to a simmer, remove 1/2 cup of the sauce, and let simmer while you prepare the pasta and the bechamel. 

Prepare pasta according to package directions, but cook until just under done, as you will be baking in the sauce. 

For the bechamel: 
6 tablespoons unsalted butter 
6 tablespoons flour 
2 cups milk 
1 1/2 cups heavy cream 
12 ounces goat cheese, softened 
1 teaspoon nutmeg 
2 teaspoons salt 
1/2 teaspoon black pepper 
1/2 cup reserved sauce
2 eggs, beaten
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
In a sauce pan, melt butter, and stir in flour. Continue to stir until smooth, then slowly stir in milk and cream, making sure not to get any lumps. Simmer slowly, stirring frequently until sauce thickens. Add goat cheese, and stir until smooth. Stir in spices remove from heat. Let sit 20 minutes, then add remaining ingredients. 

To assemble: 
Preheat oven to 350.When pasta is finished cooking, stir into meat sauce. Spray a deep lasagna pan with nonstick spray, and pour in the pasta mixture. Gently pour on the bechamel, and top with the shredded goat cheese. Bake for 60 to 90 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly. Let rest 10 minutes before serving. 

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