FOOD WISE: Try Moussaka for a taste of Greek Isles

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

MoussakaI’m in desperate need of a vacation. I’m sure you can relate. Between the job, the housework, running mom’s taxi service, helping kids with homework and breaking up their fights, my most hated chore – grocery shopping, and don’t even get me started on tax season….I’m ready for a break! Let’s see…where shall I go on my, wink, wink, vacation? (Come on, we both know I’m not getting to take any vacation. Nope! Not even a trip to the massage lady!)

For my vacation, I’m dreaming of sparkling white sandy beaches on islands where the gorgeous white stucco buildings overlook the bluest oceans on the planet and the sunsets rival even the majesty of a Texas Hill Country sunset. I’ve always wanted to go to the Greek Isles on vacation. Oh, I know these days  the country is in terrible economic straights. Apparently, conditions in the country have been compared to our own Great Depression. But, since this is a pretend vacation on my culinary tour, it’s all good. I can even lull about, recline on a sofa, float down the Nile on a barge with a handsome man fanning me like Cleopatra, if I like.

Of course, no imaginary vacation would be complete without my customary exploration of the country’s cuisine. Greece has an illustrious and long-standing culinary history. And why not? As an ancient society, they’ve had a long time to develop a cuisine that is built upon layers and layers of flavors, along with the influence of many invaders and explorers. The cuisine in Greece has a history of over 4,000 years and the very first known cookbook was written there around 320 B.C. It is known as Mediterranean cuisine, with heavy use of olive oil, wine, wheat and grapes. Greeks use even more flavorings, such as spices and herbs, than most Mediterraneans, including mint, bay leaves, garlic, onion, dill, oregano, thyme and fennel. This is probably one reason I’m so fond of Greek food. Spices and herbs really turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. Plus, how can you go wrong with the great variety of dishes – Spanakopita, Tzatziki, Moussaka, Calamari, beautiful Greek salads of cucumbers, feta, red onions, olives and tomatoes, dressed with lemon and olive oil?

Many times, when we think of Greek food, what comes to mind is long roasted lamb of the gyros, pitas and cucumber sauce. In actuality, meat is a more recent addition to the diet. As you might imagine, a country made up of islands and surrounded by ocean, consumes a great deal of fish. The rich, volcanic-based soil of the islands, along with long, sunny days, provides ideal growing conditions for a veritable plethora of veggies and fruit. Important vegetables and fruits in Greek cuisine include eggplant, tomatoes, okra, green beans, lemons, potatoes, grapes and oranges. The hilly terrain and climate favor raising sheep and goats more than cows, which is the reason lamb is a popular protein source. Beef dishes are uncommon. One of my favorite things about Greek food is its rustic quality. Greeks purposely keep the food less refined because of the hearty quality of the society itself.

I think you know me well enough by now to know that I’m not going on an imaginary trip to Greece without taking the opportunity to actually experience the cuisine firsthand.

Moussaka, which is a kind of eggplant and lamb casserole, is a favorite so guess what we had for dinner last night? What’s not to love about Moussaka? It contains all my favorites: wine, lamb made into a meat sauce, onion and garlic, and eggplant, all topped with a cheese sauce. This dish was first created by a Greek chef named Tselementés  (your guess is as good as mine on the pronouciation) in the 1920’s. This chef so revolutionized Greek cooking that cookbooks in the country are referred to as Tselementés and people who are known to be great cooks are called by his name in jest.

One of the things that makes it such an interesting dish is that it is made via a technique common in Greek cooking, whereby the meat is stewed with spices, such as cinnamon, cloves and allspice, that are traditionally used with sweets. The result is an intensely flavored, rich dish that will melt your tastebuds.

When making moussaka, you can feel free to substitute beef or turkey if you don’t like lamb (but, if you don’t like lamb, you may be dead inside). Also, don’t be tempted to skip the eggplant salting and draining step. This will keep the eggplant from tasting bitter and eliminate much of the watery mushiness many of us associate with eggplant. If you’ve never tried it, you owe it to yourself. It could become one of those great staple, comfort food dishes in your household, like lasagna or pot pie. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Opa!

Moussaka

 

Eggplant:

2 to 3 medium eggplants (about 3 pounds total), peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds

Kosher salt

1/2 cup olive oil, or as needed

 

Meat sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, peeled and diced

1 1/4 pounds ground lamb (or beef, turkey, pork, or a combination)

2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1-28-ounce can diced tomatoes

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1 pinch ground allspice

1-inch cinnamon stick

1 bay leaf

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup dry red wine

 

Cheese sauce:

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups milk

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 large egg yolks

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

 

Assembly:

1/3 cup plain breadcrumbs

 

Preparation

To prepare the eggplant:

1. Place the eggplant in a colander, toss liberally with salt, and let sit for about 1 hour to drain away extra water. Squeeze out the excess water and pat dry with a kitchen towel.

2. In a large skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil. Working in batches, fry the eggplant slices, turning as necessary, until tender and light brown, 4 to 5 minutes total. Transfer the cooked slices to a rack set over a baking sheet to drain while you sauté the remaining eggplant. Set aside.

 

To prepare the meat sauce:

1. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the olive oil. Add the onion to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until very tender, about 10 minutes. Add the ground meat and cook, stirring occasionally, until just browned, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, bay leaf, and 1/2 cup water and bring the liquids to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, season with salt and pepper, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid has reduced and the sauce is very thick, about 30 minutes.

3. Add the red wine and continue simmering until the wine has reduced and developed a sweet aroma, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Set the sauce aside.

 

To prepare the cheese sauce:

1. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and whisk until it is dissolved and the mixture resembles a smooth paste, about 2 minutes.

2. Gradually whisk in the milk about 1 cup at a time, working out any lumps that form. Bring the sauce to a full boil, then reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat. Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste.

3. In a medium bowl lightly beat the egg yolks. Whisk about 1 cup of the hot milk mixture into the yolks to bring them up to the same temperature. Slowly add the yolk mixture to the rest of the milk mixture, then add the cheese and blend well. Set aside and keep warm.

 

To assemble the moussaka:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F.

2. Scatter the breadcrumbs in a deep, rectangular baking dish. Arrange about half of the eggplant slices in an even layer over the breadcrumbs. Add all of the meat sauce over the eggplant and spread into an even layer. Arrange the remaining eggplant in an even layer over the meat sauce. Pour the cheese sauce over the eggplant.

3. Bake the moussaka until the cheese sauce is thick and golden brown and the eggplant is very tender, about 45 minutes. Let the moussaka rest for 25 minutes before serving.