Come Into My Kitchen

Traditional Greek dishes speak the language of love

Jackson County CASA case supervisor Michael Knabel cooks tradition Greek recipes, such as Pastitsio, for his co-workers and friends.
Jackson County CASA case supervisor Michael Knabel cooks tradition Greek recipes, such as Pastitsio, for his co-workers and friends. Special to The Star

Michael Knabel doesn’t need a big, fat Greek gathering to get cooking in his Kansas City kitchen. Growing up as the middle son of three boys, Knabel learned to prepare traditional dishes from his Greek mother, Christine Lillian Lavris.

As a senior case supervisor at Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), Knabel uses the food he prepares for others as a nonverbal way to communicate concern and care for friends and family. Knabel also converts meat-centric meals to vegetable-based feasts for his vegetarian fiancée, Breana Hoener.

Q: Growing up, did you identify with your mother’s Greek heritage in the kitchen?

A: Before I was 11 years old, my family ate a lot of Hamburger Helper, but it was around this time that my mother reconnected with her Greek roots and I began to help her make traditional dishes in the kitchen. We were living in Waukegan, Illinois, and I began to naturally identify with my mother’s Greek heritage, as we attended Greek cultural events with extended family.

When I was 14, my family moved to the Kansas City area, and it was around that time my mother was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. My mom kept trying to cook authentic Greek recipes, but it became too difficult for her, so when I was about 15 years old, I started cooking for my family three or so times a week.

I not only made traditional Greek dishes but also began to experiment with other foods, including traditional dishes from my father’s Austrian side of the family.

Throughout college, I would go home and cook on weekends for my family. That tradition has continued through adulthood as I go home to cook Wednesday night dinner and Sunday brunch for my family.

Q: Is food your love language?

A: My natural position as the middle child in my family is to serve as intermediary — as a peacekeeper — and perhaps that is why cooking comes naturally to me. Mealtimes are important as a source of connection with those I love.

We live in a fast-paced world, multitasking all the time. But mealtimes aren’t something people should race through, and that is why I think sharing meals regularly with those you care about is so important. It’s easier to check in with someone and talk about your day when you are taking the time to sit down and eat together.

Q: You don’t just cook for family and close friends, you also make food for your CASA co-workers.

A: Humans are hard-wired for connection. We cannot survive without being fed, both physically and emotionally. At CASA, we work with volunteers and advocate for children who are abused and neglected, and it can be emotionally draining. We don’t have a set-desk culture at work, and people often gather together at lunch.

When we make food for each other at work, it helps create a sense of community. It’s a loving act, whether you’re the one preparing the food or eating the food someone has prepared for you.

Q: Is Pastitsio one of the go-to recipes in your repertoire?

A: Pastitsio is like the Greek version of an Italian lasagna, made with short noodles and laden with warm spices, such as cinnamon, allspice and cloves. It is a labor of love to make this dish, as first you must make the ragu, then the béchamel sauce, then painstakingly align the noodles in the pan, so they bake in an even layer. I made this dish for my CASA co-workers and it was the greatest compliment when someone who isn’t a very adventurous eater liked it.

Being part of the Greek culture is like being part of a big, extended family. Food is just a natural part of gathering together, and the Greeks don’t really need an excuse or occasion to come together. While I enjoy making Greek food for others, I had a roommate in college from India who taught me how to make Indian dishes, so I am always open for a culinary adventure, too.

Making food for others can be considered very loving and nurturing, but it’s also an intimate and vulnerable act, too. After you put a lot of time into creating something you hope someone will enjoy, there’s a bit of vulnerability when you share it with another person.

Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. She also writes a nationally syndicated home column. Email her at pepi@kc.rr.com to nominate a cook.

Saturday

The 12th Annual Carnival for CASA will be 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday at Paradise Park, 1021 N.E. Colbern Road, Lee’s Summit. Go to jacksoncountycasa-mo.org or call 816-984-8217 to purchase tickets in advance. Proceeds help defray costs associated with serving more than 1,200 abused and neglected children under local court protection.

Pastitsio

Makes 24 servings

For the meat sauce:

2 onions, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 (2-pound) package ground lamb

1 medium zucchini, washed and diced, optional

2 mini eggplants, diced, optional

1 (8-ounce) package button mushrooms, sliced, optional

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon pepper

1/2 cup red wine

6 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 heaping tablespoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

For the béchamel:

2 1/2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup unsalted butter

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1 cup grated kefalotyri, Parmesan or Romano cheese

3 egg yolks

For the assemblage:

1 (16-ounce) package ziti

1 cup grated kefalotyri, Parmesan or Romano cheese

To prepare meat sauce:

In a Dutch oven, sauté onion in olive oil over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add lamb to pan and brown, breaking up chunks using a wooden spoon. Turn heat to low, add optional zucchini, eggplant and mushrooms and cook until vegetables are soft. Skim liquid out of pan and season with salt and pepper.

Pour wine into pot and season with garlic, oregano, thyme, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Simmer mixture for 5 minutes, then stir in tomatoes and simmer for an hour, or until all liquid is absorbed.

To prepare béchamel: In a 2-quart saucepan, scald milk to 180 degrees over medium heat. Take off heat, cover pan and set aside. Melt butter in a separate 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Whisk flour into butter and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes or until bubbly, to create the roux.

Stir nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper into flour mixture and turn heat to low. Slowly pour in heated milk, whisking until mixture is smooth. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until mixture becomes thick, about 10 minutes. Stir in cheese and remove pan from heat, allowing mixture to cool completely. In a small mixing bowl, beat egg yolks until frothy. Whisk eggs into cooled saucepan mixture to create the béchamel sauce. Set aside.

To assemble: Prepare pasta in a large pot as directed on package until al dente. Pour pasta into colander and allow it to drain thoroughly in the sink.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Pour pasta back into pot and gently stir in half of prepared béchamel sauce.

Line the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch pan with parchment paper and pour half of prepared pasta into pan. Neatly line pasta end-to-end in pan to create a single layer in neat rows.

Spread prepared meat mixture carefully on top of pasta layer. Carefully pour remaining pasta on top of meat layer, neatly lining each noodle end-to-end, as done on bottom layer.

Pour remaining béchamel sauce carefully over pasta and meat assemblage in pan. Sprinkle top with 1 cup grated cheese and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until cooked through and slightly browned. Allow Pastitsio to rest at least 15 minutes before cutting into portions.

Per serving: 288 calories (50 percent from fat), 16 grams total fat (7 grams saturated), 68 milligrams cholesterol, 22 grams carbohydrates, 14 grams protein, 276 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.

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