Moussaka

In the living room of the Victorian home we lived in when I was a kid we had a very large braided oval rug.  I would line up 8 to 10 marbles in the crease and push them along the entire spiral, around and around until I reached the middle, then I would turn around and push them back to the outside.  When I got them back to the beginning there was nothing left to do except turn around and do it all over again.  The braids were also the ideal size for Hot Wheels Cars, the wheels fit perfectly from groove to groove and I used to imagine the rug was a superspeedway and push the tiny cars along the entire surface.  I don’t know what ever happened to that rug, but I liked that rug, and I know it gave me countless hours of enjoyment.  The dining room table and chairs though, I had the opposite reaction to: I hated them.  The table was just a plain wooden table, not anything special, and the chairs were very uncomfortable. They were mass-produced I think, and were the type of chair you see at teachers desks, flat wide seat with a straight slatted back, and they were heavy, solid wood. The chairs were so deep that if I sat back in them it was hard to reach the table, so for me as I was a little short, I had to sit right at the very edge of the chair in order to reach my plate.  As I recall this now I can picture myself reaching for my glass of milk (or whatever we were drinking for dinner) and it always being just out of reach.  As soon as I had a grasp on it and I lifted, it would invariably slip from my hand and spill its contents across the table. This happened many, many… many times.  When that happened, I was always glad I didn’t sit near my dad… “all’s I’m sayin”. The worst thing about this dining set also happens to be my most vivid memory about the table and from my time in this house.  It was a cool winter weekend day and my father inexplicably had decided to paint the dining room.  The chairs were set along one wall and the table pushed up as close to them as possible so he could paint the other walls.  My mother had made lunch for us kids; Bologna sandwiches with ketchup on (of course) Wonder Brand white bread.  She cut off the crusts, as we wanted, and cut them into four triangles and piled them on a plate for us to eat.  After lunch, everyone went his or her own way and it was about an hour or so later that I decided I was still hungry.  I have always sat at the same place at the table and even though it was not in its usual spot in the middle of the room, I decided to crawl under the table, squeeze myself into the chair at the spot I liked and grabbed one more sandwich triangle. 

I am not sure if it was the odor of paint, the warm bologna, or (what I highly suspect) the ketchup that had made the bread soggy, but after just one bite, I knew I was going to be sick.  I could also tell I was trapped, I could not move the chair to get out, I could not push the table away, I was stuck and I panicked, and I did get sick… very sick... all over the table, myself, it was everywhere, and I was still stuck.  To this day I will not eat bologna, or sliced white bread, or make a sandwich using ketchup and if I even see soggy bread, I will gag out of reflex.  Is this any reason to hate that table… rationally, no, but there it is nonetheless. 

I think there are many people who have similar experiences where something has made them ill and they have sworn off that food forever.  A friend of mine told me they got sick after eating sushi once and now the site of raw fish makes him queasy, David will not eat any type of melon after a bad experience with a cantaloupe. I also will not eat tuna casserole anymore and oysters are off my list. Though to be fair oysters are off the list because I just think they’re gross. Hats off to all you oyster lovers out there I just can't do it!

If you have been reading this blog you are bound to notice that I am not a super adventurous eater. If I were asked to be a guest on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, I would turn it down without hesitation. I will never be seen in a street market eating crickets or scorpions off a stick (you should know my stance on bugs already) nor will you ever see me in one of those places where there is no menu and the chef just brings you whatever he has decided to cook. It took me many years before I could eat sushi and I have to clarify that all I ever eat is the kind in a roll. No eel, no sea urchin, no roe... I stick to yellow tail and Ahi wrapped up in as much rice as the chef will allow.

Somewhere around 1989 (or so) David and I took a two-month trip abroad.  On the first part of our trip the weather was a bit rainy and cold and unfortunately I started feeling a bit poorly. When it came time for us to board a boat to make our way to Greece I was downright sick and the boat trip across the Adriatic and Ionian Seas was miserable. The boat we were on, (inexplicably and frighteningly named Poseidon), had no sleeping areas and was crowded with rowdy college kids who decided to stay up all night and party. And I can tell you that trying to sleep on the floor, between rows of seats, in choppy seas, while you’re not feeling well, while kids are screaming and partying does not make you feel any better. In fact when you get off one of those trips you feel much, much worse. The next day I stayed in bed while David wandered around whatever town we were in, looking in museums and churches and basically doing tourist things. Every now and then he would pop into the hotel to bring me some soup or to tell me what he saw before he would venture out again. It was still a bit cold and rainy when we left there and headed for a little beach town called Stavros. When we arrived there it was sunny, quite warm and quiet. Our schedule which had been meticulously planned out before we even left the States dictated we were only had a little more than a week in all of Greece but when we checked into this little hotel and were asked when we would be checking out I replied "when it gets cloudy, we'll leave". One night we ate at this little outdoor restaurant. A very local place to be sure. Now I am the first to admit that I'm not now, nor was I then, particularly knowledgeable about Greek culture. Up to that point the food I had was pretty straight forward: lots of lamb, moussaka, tzatziki, calamari... all stuff I recognized and was pretty okay with. This night though, at this restaurant, was my ultimate test of... something. As we sat there awaiting our food the waiter passed by holding a very large tray that had a full lambs head, split down the center and each half of the cavity was piled high with french fries. Now, I know it was just my imagination but I could have sworn that the waiter purposely slowed down as he passed by our table to make sure we had a good look at what I suppose was a house specialty for the regulars. Let me just tell you now, I honestly thought I was going to die. I even had to turn and sit with my back to that table so I couldn’t see it. Over the next few nights I pretty much stuck to eating beans and vegetables, at a different restaurant a little way up the street. One day, more than a full week after we arrived, the skies turned cloudy so we packed our bags and moved on. 

So enough with all the things I either won’t eat or think are yucky and let's get to this moussaka.  Moussaka is the Greek version of shepherd’s pie. I actually modified this recipe from a cookbook I bought while I was in Greece. When I bought the book I didn't really look through it carefully. I saw it had recipes for some of the things we had been eating there, so I simply tucked it into the bottom of my bag and forgot about it. When I got back to the USA and sat down to actually read it, I realized that the book is almost impossible to comprehend. Most of the recipes are like my grandmothers recipes where they will state, “add some garlic” or “add some spinach”. Honestly there are recipes where the ingredient list indicates “some onion”, “some cheese” or “a little milk”. Um... not helpful folks... and then when there are measurements they might say “add a teacup of oil”.  What? How much is a teacup? Remember the internet was not all that easy to access back then so I couldn't just ask Siri or Alexa to tell me how many ounces are in a teacup. But nowadays I can, and I was determined to make moussaka from this cookbook, so I did some research and a few test runs and this is the end result.  I like this recipe for its simplicity in flavor, which comes from basic ingredients, beef or lamb cooked with onions, garlic, tomatoes and a bay leaf or two, that’s about it.  There are a lot of recipes that add wine, tomato paste, canned tomatoes, and a number of spices.  All very good recipes I might add, but this recipe, for me, stands out above the rest.  Another thing I like about this recipe is that there is no need to salt the eggplant prior, just slice, coat, bake and you’re ready to go. That’s right, you heard me I said bake!  Now this is not very traditional when making eggplant as most people will tell you. They will insist that you need to fry the eggplant slices in oil to make it properly. This indeed will give you a different texture, but it also adds in an unnecessary amount of extra oil to the dish and quite frankly to my arteries as well. So by baking we can make this dish just a bit more healthy… Hooray for us! While I’m talking about eggplant I have to tell you that every time I make this I always wonder though how many eggplants I should buy.  So think about it this way when you’re at the store.  You really want about 12 to 15 slices of eggplant (if you cut them lengthwise) and each slice should be about ¼ inch thick. So depending on the size of the eggplant 2 or 3 will usually suffice.  Here’s the thing though… let’s say you buy two eggplants and you only get 10 slices out of them.  Guess what.  That’s going to be ok. Just adjust the layering, perhaps making only two layers of eggplant instead of three. 

So, here is how I put this together.

You’re going to need a 9 x 7 inch baking dish, (you can use a standard 9 x 13 inch baking dish, but you’ll have a much thinner moussaka in the end) a few pots and pans, maybe a plate and/or shallow dish, and a sheet pan or two, but other that no special equipment is required. Oh and one more note before we get to the ingredients... The recipe uses three whole eggs, the whites are used in the filling and the yolks are used in the topping so keep that in mind when you're separating them.  

Ingredients:

For the filling:

  • ⅓ cup olive oil

  • 2 medium onions, finely chopped

  • 1½ pounds lean ground beef or lamb

  • 3 large ripe tomatoes, chopped

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 2 garlic cloves, minced

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • ½ teaspoon pepper

  • 2 - 3 large globe eggplants

  • 3 egg whites

  • 3 - 4 tablespoons water

  • 1½ cups seasoned bread crumbs

  • ½ cup parmesan cheese, grated

For the topping:

  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter

  • ½ cup all-purpose flour

  • 2½ cups milk, heated until warm

  • ¼ teaspoon salt

  • ⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg

  • 3 egg yolks, slightly beaten

  • ¾ cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Directions:

To make the filling:

In a medium sized pot, heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering.

Add the onion and sauté until it has softened, about 5 minutes giving it a stir every now and then to promote even cooking.

When the onions are tender add in the ground meat and continue to sauté for 10 minutes, stirring it often so that everything gets good and mixed.

Next, add in the tomatoes, the bay leaf, the garlic, and the salt and pepper. Give it a good stir too.

Allow this mix to gently boil for about 45 to 55 minutes, or until most of the liquid is gone. Not bone dry of course, just somewhere in between soupy and pasty. You want to stir this occasionally as it cooks so the tomatoes break down and to break up any large clumps of meat if there are any.  

Meanwhile…
Preheat the oven to 375°F with racks in the upper and lower thirds.

Trim the stem ends from the eggplant and slice them lengthwise (the long way) into ¼ inch thick slices. You want about 12 to 15 full slices and it’s best to avoid the very edges as the skin can become tough. Twelve slices will allow for four slices of eggplant per layer, which should be perfect for a 9 x 7 inch pan.  If you’re using a larger pan try for 15 slices (5 per layer) and you’ll be golden! Just keep in mind that the overall goal is to have enough eggplant to cover the bottom of the pan and an equal amount for two more layers.

In a shallow bowl or plate whisk the egg whites and water together.

Then In a separate bowl or plate place the bread crumbs. Have a couple of baking sheets handy as you’ll need them as well.

Dip each slice of eggplant into the egg whites, then into the breadcrumbs to coat them lightly.

Arrange the slices in an even layer on the baking sheets.

Bake the eggplant slices for 35 to 45 minutes until they are very tender and cooked through, rotating the pans about halfway through.

Remove eggplant from oven and leave them on the baking sheets to cool until you are ready to use them.

Reduce the heat of the oven to 350°F and position the oven rack in the center position once you have removed the eggplant as that will be our final baking temperature.

When the meat mixture is done you can adjust the seasoning as needed, give it a final stir and set that aside for now as well.

So now we put everything together – Finally, right?

Grab yourself that 9 x 7 inch baking pan and arrange ⅓ of the eggplant slices along the bottom of the pan in a single layer.  It’s okay if there are a few gaps here and there and if you have to overlap a few slices ever so slightly that’s okay too.  

Top the eggplant with half of the meat mixture spreading it into a nice even layer.

Now take that Parmesan cheese and sprinkle half of it over the meat mixture.

Now we repeat that… add another layer of eggplant using half the remaining eggplant and top that with the remaining meat mixture then sprinkle that with the remaining Parmesan cheese, then place the remaining eggplant slices on top.  Basically make layers of eggplant and meat and know that ultimately it won’t matter what order you put them in as long as they are all in there!  Now, let’s pause for a quick note here… if you don’t have enough eggplant to make three layers don’t sweat it.  Instead of making three layers put one layer of eggplant on the bottom using half of your eggplant, add all of the meat mixture, sprinkle with all of the cheese then top with the other half of the eggplant… Viola. Set this aside for now while we...

Make the topping…

Basically this is just a béchamel, if you have ever made mac and cheese you’re probably a pro at béchamel.

In a medium sized pan, over medium heat, melt the butter.

When the butter has melted whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until smooth, about 2 minutes.

While still whisking, pour in the hot milk and cook the sauce until it gets smooth and is thick then whisk in salt and the nutmeg and remove from heat.

Allow the sauce to cool for 5 minutes, whisking very often. If you rush this step you run the risk of scrambling the egg yolks when you add them to the hot sauce and that would not be very good.

After the five minutes has past, go ahead and whisk together the egg yolks and the Parmesan cheese lightly, and then whisk that into the béchamel, whisking, whisking, whisking until the sauce is nice and smooth.

Top the moussaka with the béchamel and bake for 40 – 45 minutes or until topping is golden and spotted brown.

Take that bad boy from the oven and allow it to rest 5 – 10 minutes so things have a little time to cool down and come together. When you’re ready to eat put the whole thing on the table along side a nice Greek salad and maybe a bottle of Ouzo… Opa!

Riley literally sits right by your chair, hoping you'll pick him up and let him eat off the table.