May it Please the Palate- The Greeks Invented Pasta

"Give me a word, any word.."

You recall the patriarch of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" boasting that all words - and indeed all things - derived from the Greeks. He was, of course, correct. Take pasta. Italian? WRONG! Marco Polo brought it from China? HA. Pasta is Greek.

From the online etymological dictionary: the Italian word "pasta" comes from the much older Greek word "pasta," meaning "''barley porridge,'' probably originally ''a salted mess of food.''" (I guess the Greeks got tired of eating so much of it?)

But that's not all. The word "macaroni" is derived from the Greek word makaria (pronounced ma-ka-REE-ah), similarly meaning "food made from barley," essentially the staff of life in Greece for over two thousand years. Barley dishes were used in many rituals, including the wake held after a funeral. From that tradition, we not only have the word "makaronia" - an all-purpose Greek word for pasta - but to this day, the traditional meal after a funeral service is called the "makaria." [Source: www.greekgourmand.com.]

The "Greek Gourmand" also notes that the Greeks have different words for pasta without meat (makaronia) and with meat (makaronada); yet paradoxically, the version served at the funeral wake is served without meat, and is nonetheless called makaronada. Nobody ever accused my people of being consistent, which could explain the financial mess they're in today.

Recipes for Greek pasta, in cookbooks or on line, vary widely. Some look no different from the basic version: boiled pasta with red sauce and cheese. Others add fried garlic or onion. Some have meat, spiced the Greek way with cinnamon, or nutmeg. Others have browned butter and cheese.

My own version of makaronia is unique. I believe it is something I created over the years, originally from a dish my Aunt Mary would serve when I was a child, and refined through the wisdom of Basile, a friend and Greek restaurateur. Mary would make hers with a type of pasta I'd never seen before that is hard to find--a thick hollow spaghetti (in Italian, bucatini). Mary would serve it with a Greek-spiced red sauce and plenty of cheese. I couldn't get enough.

All I can remember about Basile's version is that he would remove his pasta a couple minutes before it was done, rinse it, and return it to the pot to finish boiling. He explained this would reduce starchiness. Rinsing pasta is generally frowned upon, because starch helps sauce adhere to the pasta; but since Basile showed me, I've always done it that way. However, the more I think about it, I believe he did that in his restaurant to better "hold" the pasta before it was ordered.

Besides, in this case, I'm eventually going to sauté that cooked pasta in browned butter. So it won't hurt to do it in the way of the wise old Greek. After browning the pasta, toss it with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, and cheese. Greeks use a hard, whey-based sheep's milk cheese called mizithra, which I believe tastes like chalk, so I don't use it. Instead, I'll use kefalotyri, which has more interesting flavor, and mix it with feta and perhaps another cheese. (Like any pasta and cheese, you can experiment with any blend.)

I also like to add a dash of nutmeg and some buttered bread crumbs. This is ultimate Greek comfort food, inexpensive, easy to make, and delicious enough to make you feel guilty.

Ingredients

1 lb. pkg. Penne pasta

1/2 to one full stick butter

olive oil

1 small onion

kefalotyri cheese (substitute parmesan or romano)

grated or crumbled feta

perhaps some kasseri or manchego for complexity

salt, pepper, nutmeg

bread crumbs such as panko or from dried Greek or Italian bread

chopped Italian parsley

Directions

1. Ignore how much butter I've suggested above.

2. Cook the pasta in salted water. Add a couple drops of oil so it doesn't stick. Stir in the first minute. Remove from water when it is a minute short of al dente, rinse, and return to the boiling water until just tender. Drain and hold in the pasta pot.

3. Finely dice onion and sauté in olive oil. Add most of the butter. Add the pasta and cook over medium heat, stirring, until it gets a nice brown crust. Turn off heat, season with salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. Return to the pasta pot to hold.

4. Place the remaining butter in the sauté pan and brown the bread crumbs. Toss the finished bread crumbs and a few squirts of olive oil with the pasta sitting in the pot.

5. Serve the pasta in shallow bowls or dishes and top with plenty of grated cheese and chopped parsley for color.

This will serve four. I like to serve this with roasted seasonal vegetables. These days, it's cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, caramelized in the oven with olive oil and salt.

By the way, I would not necessarily skimp on the butter in the makaronia. I once saw a cook from one of the Italian chains making a sautéed pasta dish and he used an entire stick of butter for just one serving, so I don't think one stick is overdoing it for four people.

Greeks don't use butter often, but when they do, they make it count. Which reminds me; the Greeks not only invented butter, but happen to have the most interesting men in the world. I'll tell you about it sometime! In the meantime ... stay hungry, my friends.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard, and Walker PC, a firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment and civil right litigation. He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine in Ann Arbor. He occasionally updates his blog at http://mayitpleasethepalate.blogspot.com/.

Published: Thu, Feb 7, 2013