Memorable Moussaka

by 1jmomentj

Probably ten years ago, I brought this moussaka to a pot luck at work, and I swear there are still people who bring it up longingly. The other day in the lounge, when I was telling my colleagues about this blog, I got a request from a few nurses to post the recipe.

Moussaka is a classic Greek casserole made with ground beef, or lamb, cooked in a sweet spicy tomato sauce, layered with broiled eggplant, sprinkled with cheese, then covered overall with a yogurt/egg mixture and then baked. ‘Tis to die for.

I found this recipe in a book of Middle Eastern recipes by Paula Wolfert. However, that recipe included sliced potatoes in the layers, and all the Lebanese and Egyptian and Iranian nurses and doctors with whom I work who ate the moussaka that day kept saying to me, “There are potatoes in here, Jane. Why are there potatoes in your moussaka? It’s delicious, but the potatoes don’t belong.” So, forever afterward I’ve left the potatoes out of the recipe. It also cuts down on the work involved.

You can make moussaka with either beef or lamb, but if I’m going to the trouble of making moussaka, I’m going to go to Whole Foods and spend the money for ground lamb. I’m not going to use just some package of ground beef. Lamb elevates this dish from something your mother would have made on Saturday night, to something you would go out to a nice Greek restaurant to be served. (If you can’t find ground lamb, you can buy a boneless leg of lamb, have the butcher grind it for you, and then have him package it into one-pound packages which you can freeze.)

The lamb makes the difference in all sorts of ways. Lamb is a rich, delicious meat, and you taste that richness in the dish. For those of you who are not familiar with lamb, (and some people really don’t like it) this may be a great way to introduce yourself to the meat, because its slight “gamey” flavor will be mixed in with the tomato and onion. Lamb is more expensive than beef, so if cost is a deciding factor for you, by all means, use ground beef. But I recently bought a pound of ground lamb at Whole Foods for just over $7, so it’s not that expensive.

Aside from the price, the other downside to lamb is it’s pretty fatty, and if you can’t get lean ground lamb, you’ll have a lot of grease to pour off. Save the can that the tomato purree came in, dump out any extra tomato stuff, rinse it and dry it well, so you can pour off all the lamb, (or beef, you’ll have grease with beef, too) grease into the can. Never, ever pour grease down the drain, or the Mr. Roto-Plumber Guy will be getting rich from your misdeeds!

This is enough work that you’ll want to serve it for guests at a dinner party, with a nice crusty bread and a big green salad full of artichoke hearts and all kinds of olives and feta cheese. Use olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of butter for the bread. When shopping for a red wine, tell the wine expert in the store that you’re serving lamb in tomato sauce and you need a red that’s big enough to stand up to it.

So, as always, read the recipe all the way through before you start. You area going to need a pretty big baking dish for this, as it serves eight. I like the disposable aluminum pans available in the baking aisle at the grocery store. Though I just bought a new Pyrex baking dish to make this in. It wasn’t expensive and I like it.

Also, think about time management. There are a number of time-consuming steps in here. The eggplant slices have to soak for at least 30 minutes before being dried and then broiled. The meat sauce takes 30-40 minutes to cook. And once assembled, the entire casserole takes about 45 minutes to cook, and then it has to sit a few minutes before you can cut it. I’d give myself at least two hours from start to finish on this casserole.

There’s nothing wrong with having your guests wait a bit, enjoying the aroma of an amazing dinner while they sip some wine or sparkling water, but you don’t want to have them meandering around your place looking at their smart phones and scraping for the last of the chips and salsa. About half an hour is the most you should ever make guests wait for their dinner.

Always set your table before you get your shower. Have everything look just the way you want it, then get yourself ready.

Moussaka

Equipment you will need

A big heavy skillet, a 10x14x2-inch baking dish (I bought a Pyrex dish that’s slightly smaller, and it works fine), a large bowl or pan for soaking eggplant in salt water.

Ingredients

1 1/2  pounds eggplant — you want a nice shiny purple/black eggplant, which is solid and heavy, with no soft spots.

5 tablespoons olive oil (plus or minus), plus more for cooking the eggplant

1 1/2 cups minced onions — recently, pre-chopped onions were recalled, so I’m back to cutting up my own onions, alas. But better safe than sorry.

1 clove garlic, chopped — garlic comes in bulbs, which look kind of like tulip bulbs. Each bulb is naturally divided into smaller cloves inside the papery covering. You want just a clove, not an entire bulb. To peel the clove, take the flat side of a big knife, put it on the garlic clove and smash down on the clove to break it open. Then it’s easy to peel and chop up.

1 pound lean ground beef or lamb, Whole Foods sells ground lamb. If you don’t have a Whole Foods or specialty butcher nearby, you can buy a boneless leg of lamb, have it ground up, and divided into 1 lb. packages. But this produces pretty fatty ground meat which has to be drained before you add the onions and garlic.

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, more or less to taste

1/2 cup tomato purree or strained tomatoes, buy the smallest can you can find. A half cup is only four ounces, or 120 cc.

1/4 cup chopped parsley

2 tablespoons real butter

1 package grated Parmesan cheese — enough to cover the top of the pan generously, if you have a block of Parmesan, so much the better, grate away.

3 eggs

2 cups plain yogurt, beaten until smooth

1 cup milk

Pinch of paprika — the recipe calls for hot Hungarian paprika, but I’ve never been able to find it.

Instructions

1. Peel the eggplants and cut into 1/2-inch circles, discarding the top and bottom. Dissolve a tablespoon or more of salt into a large bowl of cool water to make a salt solution and soak the slices of eggplant for at least 30 minutes. The salty water draws the water out of the eggplant by osmotic pressure over a semi-permeable membrane. See, 10th grade biology actually was good for something!

2. While the eggplant is soaking, in a large frying pan, cook the ground meat until it’s brown and crumbly. Pour off most of the liquid fat into a tin can, NOT DOWN THE DRAIN. Add the onions and garlic and cook them with the meat, stirring often, until the onions are soft, about 5 minutes more.

3. Stir in the spices and tomato purree. Add 1/2 cup water, the parsley and salt to taste. (Remember, not too much salt. People can always add it at the table.) Turn the sauce off once it tastes right and leave it on the back of the stove.

4. Heat the broiler. (My broiler doesn’t need heating. I just turn it on when I need it. You know your oven.) Drain the eggplant, squeeze the slices gently, and pat them dry with paper towels. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and brush it lightly with olive oil. Put the eggplant slices on the baking sheet in a single layer and brush them with olive oil. (You will find that they soak quite a bit. Don’t over do it. The oil is just to help them brown.) Broil until golden brown on both sides. This should take about five minutes per side. Transfer the slices to a dish and put them to the side.

Broiled eggplant on the lamb mixture, almost ready to bake!

5. Use half the butter (you can use cooking spray, but butter tastes so much better) to thoroughly grease a 10x14x2- inch baking dish. Cover the bottom of the pan with the meat sauce. Layer the eggplant on top of the meat. Cover the eggplant entirely with cheese.

6. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Beat the eggs well. Slowly stir in the yogurt and milk. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Pour the yogurt/milk mixture over the top of the casserole and dot with the last of the butter. Let the casserole settle for about 10 minutes. This lets the eggy mixture, which will bind it all together, work its way down through all that spongy eggplant — so set a timer. Bake, uncovered, until the top is golden brown. That’s about 45 minutes. Check, and let it cook longer if it needs it. Remove from the heat, let it settle for a few minutes (not more than 10) then cut in large squares and serve.

Finished moussaka, cut up and ready to serve. Wish you could get a whiff of my kitchen!

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