I have always been a ‘quick meal’ kind of gal as an adult, mostly because life is so busy with little time to really enjoy the task of cooking, especially on the weekdays. But growing up in a Greek family taught me that so many delicious things require a good bit of time to make. One of them is my favorite dish called moussaka. If you have never had it, let me explain… It is thin pieces of fried potatoes and fried eggplant that are layered with meat sauce and topped with a ‘custard like” creamy and fluffy béchamel, then baked in the oven to heat everything through and brown the béchamel cream on top. I have had this dish at Greek restaurants, but it never tastes quite like it’s supposed to, and if you try the Middle Eastern versions, they skip the béchamel altogether! Oh, the horror!
Some people also add cinnamon to their meat sauce, but I skip it…
I cannot explain to you the feeling of satisfaction that I have after indulging in one (or two) lovely, moist and creamy slices. It really takes me back to my childhood…
But, as I said, it does take some time to make…so make sure you have a few hours to spare so that you can take your time in preparing all of the different components. You can make the meat sauce ahead of time, so that is something that can save you some time.
I can’t wait for Farmer’s Market season to start, so that I can start getting my veggies there, but for this recipe, I had picked up some beautiful eggplant at the store over the weekend. I was determined to make time this week to get it done, and I am so glad that I did. It was so delicious! We only have 2 slices left after making a huge pan. I hope you try the recipe it is well worth the effort…
***An original recipe from www.goodfoodgourmet.com
6-8 Tablespoons olive oil
2# lean ground beef
2 medium yellow onions, finely diced
6 large garlic cloves, crushed
2-6oz can of tomato paste
I cup water
2 Tablespoons dried oregano
2 large bay leaves
S&P to taste (start with ¼ teaspoons of each, and add more as needed)
8 medium eggplants
6 medium potatoes
¼ cup toasted, finely ground bread crumbs
Canola oil for frying
Fluffy Bechamel Sauce
½ cup butter
½ cup flour
3 cups whole milk, warm
3 large eggs
3 cups grated cheese (you can use kefalotiri, parmesan, romano, asiago or graviera)
Salt and white pepper to taste
Before you do anything, wash and slice your eggplant thinly lengthwise. Get a small pan and line with paper towels, and put the eggplant slices on the paper towel and salt well. Repeat this until you no longer have any eggplant left. Make sure after salting the top layer, you put a layer of paper towels on top of this layer too. Eggplant has a lot of water in it, so we need to get rid of as much as we can before you fry it. You can do this in the morning and just leave it in the fridge or the counter. It must sit at least for 2 hours… then forget about it until you are ready to fry.
It should look like this…
Heat the oil in a large pot and then add the onions and sauté until they start to caramelize. Add the garlic and cook for a few minutes, then add in all of the ground beef. Use a wooden spoon and smash down the meat until it is no longer in large clumps. Cook the meat through for about 5 minutes, constantly stirring on moderate heat. Add a little salt and pepper at this point and cook until the meat is no longer pink. Then add the tomato paste and the water, and stir until it is all well incorporated. Add the bay leaf and the ground oregano, and continue to stir well. At this point, lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. This should be a very DRY sauce. I do not add diced tomatoes or crushed tomatoes because the extra liquid will ruin the texture of the potatoes and they will not hold up when slicing. After the 30 minutes cooking time, check for S&P and adjust at this time. Turn off the heat and let the sauce rest. It should be on the dry side, like this…
Next, peel your potatoes and slice these thinly lengthwise as well. Fry all of the potatoes and drain them on paper towels and lightly salt. Do the same for the eggplants, but make sure to put paper towels between each layer that is removed from the oil. Eggplant can absorb a lot of oil during the frying process. I fried everything in canola oil, so make sure to cook them well.
When everything is fried, you can start layering…
First add the bread crumbs to the bottom evenly, so that it will absorb any liquid from the sauce. Always start with the potato at the bottom, since that will be the base for the dish. Make sure to slightly overlap them, because that will help in keeping the layers together when slicing. Then cover with a thin layer of meat sauce on top of the potatoes then add overlapping slices of eggplant and then a little more meat sauce on top of that. It should look like this…
Repeat until you have used up most or all of the potatoes and eggplant. Remember to leave at least 1” at the top for the béchamel sauce. I used a 9”x13” pan, and it came almost to the top.
Once you have finished layering, melt the butter in a small stock pot and add the flour. Cook this for about 5 minutes, continually stirring with a wooden spoon, then add the warm milk and switch to a balloon whisk. You need to whisk with a little muscle to prevent getting any lumps. Switch to a wooden spoon to make sure you have incorporated everything from the tight corners of the pan, and then use the whisk again to incorporate any lingering lumps. At this point, take it off the heat and add 1 ½ cups of the grated cheese and the nutmeg, and stir well again. Lastly, add in the eggs and whisk until well incorporated. It should look like this…
Taste for salt and pepper at this point, but don’t add too much salt…we still have another 1 ½ cups of grated cheese to go on top of the béchamel before it goes in the oven. Slowly pour the cream over the layers in the pan, top with the rest of the cheese and bake in the center of a 350°F oven for 25 minutes. Then turn up the oven to 400°F, and move the pan to the top rack until golden brown. When you remove it from the oven, let it sit for about 15 minutes before slicing, so that the slices don’t fall apart.