WHAT’S COOKIN’: In the kitchen with Mal Wasserman

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By Thursday, Jan 26 Farm and Table
Laurily Epstein
Mal Wasserman in her kitchen in Great Barrington, tasting the Pastitsio she is preparing for Dining for Women.

Many people, particularly from the New York area, have moved to the Berkshires to take advantage of our rich cultural attractions. The growing number of New York (and Boston) transplants has increased the off-season attendance at cultural events and membership in the large variety of local service organizations. Mal Wasserman, a New York transplant who moved to Great Barrington to be closer to Tanglewood, is one such immigrant who has taken full advantage of the many civic and cultural opportunities here.

Although Tanglewood was the original motivation for her move from New York City to the Berkshires, once here she took every opportunity to become an active member of the community. In just a few years, she has become involved in a number of cultural and civic organizations. If you attend a Berkshire Grown winter farmers market, Wasserman is the greeter upon your arrival. If you partake of the free meals on Monday nights at Berkshire South, chances are she helped cook and serve it. You might have run into her at the Mason Library, where she volunteers. A music devotee, she attends the Metropolitan Opera concerts at the Mahaiwe, enjoys Berkshire Bach and Crescendo. And Tanglewood remains an important part of her cultural life.

Pastitsio, ready to eat, entrée Wasserman was preparing for Dining for Women. Photo: Laurily Epstein

Pastitsio, ready to eat, entrée Wasserman was preparing for Dining for Women. Photo: Laurily Epstein

In winter, her favorite Sunday activity is cooking. Given the weather, soups and stews are obvious choices. For those of us of a certain age, it was fun to learn that she is a fan of Chicken Marbella, popularized by the original Silver Palate cookbook, which remains one of my favorites.

On the day I interviewed Wasserman, she was finishing up the entrée she was bringing to the monthly Dining For Women dinner. A devotee of Ina Garten’s cookbooks, she often makes dishes from her “Make it Ahead” book.

The recipe she made for the Dining for Women dinner is Pastitsio, which takes a fair amount of time but can be made in stages over two days. “It’s the perfect dish for winter,” says Wasserman. “It is a very forgiving recipe, and people love it.” She made a few minor changes to Garten’s recipe, but they did not alter the tastiness of the dish. The ingredient list is formidable, but please don’t get turned off by that.

Onions, meat and spices for the Pastitsio simmering.

Onions, meat, tomato sauce, shells, and spices for the Pastitsio.

Good olive oil

1 ½ cups chopped yellow onion (1 large)

1 pound lean ground beef

1 pound lean ground lamb

½ cup dry red wine, such as Cotes du Rhone

1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes in thick paste

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ½ cups whole milk*

1 cup heavy cream*

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour (she prefers Wondra)

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 ½ cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided

7 ounces Greek yogurt

12 ounces small pasta shells

2 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten

*She uses half-and-half instead of the milk and heavy cream.

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the beef and lamb and sauté over medium heat for 8-10 minutes, crumbling it with a wooden spoon, until it’s no longer pink. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, and cayenne, and continue cooking over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their liquid, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1½ teaspoons black pepper. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 40-45 minutes, until all liquid evaporates. Set aside.

The béchamel: heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, until simmering. Photo: Laurily Epstein

The béchamel: heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, until simmering. Photo: Laurily Epstein

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

For the béchamel, heat the milk and cream together in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, until simmering. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, add the flour, and cook over medium heat for 4-6 minutes, whisking constantly, until thick and smooth. Add the nutmeg, 1 tablespoon salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Stir in ¾ cup of the Parmesan cheese and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Stir in the yogurt and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the shells al dente, according to the package instructions. Drain and set aside.

pastitsio combining

Combining the pasta with the meat and tomato sauce.

To assemble, combine the pasta with the meat and tomato sauce, stir in the eggs, and pour the mixture into an 11 x 15 x 2-inch baking dish. Spread the béchamel evenly over the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining ¾ cup Parmesan cheese. Bake for 1 hour, until golden brown and bubbly. Set aside for 10 minutes and serve hot.

And there you are. Pour a glass of good wine to thank yourself for making such a great dish, and then dig in.

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