Moussaka

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Jennifer Pallian
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Moussaka is one of my favourite dishes in the entire universe. If you come around here much, you may roll your eyes at that. I admit I show a lot of enthusiasm for many foods. I love a lot of foods. But there are very few I would commit to calling a favourite. Moussaka merits "favourite" status.

Here's why.

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Moussaka is hard core comfort food. Ground meat, rich tomato sauce, potatoes and creamy white sauce. Piping hot, and browned with crispy edges. It's your mom's shepherd's pie meets your mom's lasagna. That is a lot of comfort in one dish.

Also, it intriguing. There is lamb. There's cinnamon. There is nutmeg. There is roasted eggplant, and nutty kefalotyri (or parmesan) cheese.

It's familiar, but it's got interest.

Comfort food, elevated.

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I have a pearl of wisdom to share with you.

Salt your eggplant.

I know it is an extra step, but this is exactly the step that turns "I hate eggplant" people into "I want my wedding cake made of eggplant" people.

Too far? Okay, maybe.

Salting the sliced eggplant and letting it stand serves to draw out the moisture, so that it will brown properly and have crispy edges with a gorgeous silken interior when cooked. Failure to perform this step will result in pale eggplant sponges that slurp up oil and are oily, soggy and slimy in a finished dish.

I think that's a pretty compelling argument for the extra step.

I used a combination of eggplant and zucchini in my moussaka. Partially because, yes, they are a natural pair, and partly because I got a MONSTER zucchini at the farmers market for only TWO bucks! It is more than 2 feet tall. That means it was less than a buck a foot! Unfortunately, it's skin is about 1/2 inch think and tough as nails, and I could only actually cut through the top 1/4.

Ah well. It made an awesome pretend guitar.

Feel free to use all eggplant and skip the zucchini if you prefer.

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Moussaka

Serves 6 to 8.

  • 2 large or 4 small potatoes

  • 2 medium eggplants

  • salt

  • 1 large zucchini (or the top 1/4 of a guitar-sized monster zucchini, if you can find one)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil

For Meat Sauce

  • 2 tbsp olive oil

  • 1 cup diced onion (from 1 medium, or 1/2 large onion)

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 1 lb ground lamb

  • 2 tbsp tomato paste

  • 2 bay leaves

  • 2 cinnamon sticks (or 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon)

  • 1/8 tsp ground cloves

  • 2 cups diced tomatoes

  • 1/4 cup red wine (or 1 tbsp red wine vinegar)

  • salt, to taste

For white sauce

  • 1/4 cup butter

  • 1/4 cup flour

  • 2 cups milk

  • 2/3 cup grated kefalotyri or parmesan cheese

  • pinch nutmeg

  • salt, to taste

1. Peel and boil the potatoes until just tender. When cool enough to handle, slice into 1/4 inch rounds. Set aside.

2. While potatoes are boiling, slice the eggplants crosswise into 1/2 inch rounds and spread on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Sprinkle generously with salt on both sides, then top with another baking sheet weighted down (with cans, or a jug of milk - be creative; you just want weight). Set aside 15 minutes, while preheating broiler.

3. Pat and gently squeeze eggplant slices with paper towel to remove as much moisture as possible. Rinse under running water, and dry once again. Slice zucchini into 1/4 inch rounds. Toss zucchini and eggplant slices on baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, then arrange in a single layer. Broil on highest oven rack for 6 minutes, or until slightly charred, then flip slices and repeat on the other side. Set pan aside.

4. Make meat sauce: Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and cook until softened, then add garlic and cook 1 minute more. Add ground lamb and cook until browned, stirring often and breaking up any large pieces with a metal spoon. Stir in tomato paste and cook 1 minute, then stir in diced tomatoes and red wine, or red wine vinegar. Add the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and cloves. Reduce heat to low and simmer, about 30 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Make white sauce: Melt butter over moderate heat in a medium saucepan. Stir in flour and cook 1 minute, stirring constantly (the goal is to cook out the starch, but you don't want to brown it - reduce the heat if necessary). Whisk in 1/4 cup of the milk until fully blended, then very gradually whisk in remaining milk. Stir frequently until sauce is thickened. Slowly sprinkle in cheese and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and nutmeg. Reduce heat to minimum, and continue to stir now and then while you assemble the moussaka.

6. Assemble the moussaka: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large baking dish, arrange a bottom layer of overlapping eggplant and zucchini slices (alternating). Spread the meat sauce over top. Add another overlapping layer of eggplant/zucchini, followed by the potato slices. Pour the white sauce over top and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until bubbly and browned.