Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Moussaka My Way

Earlier this month I went to a writer's retreat in the North Carolina mountains with three women writers. With more than one woman in the room, it's a given that the conversation will feature family and food, but not necessarily in that order. Although we talked a lot about writing, and each of us wrote in solitude for hours each day, we came together each evening for dinner. Each of us was assigned dinner preparation for one night, then we'd eat left-overs on the final night.

Our first night's offering was supplied by Billie Hinton, who picked it up at Angelina's Kitchen in Pittsboro, NC. Billie brought a beautiful moussaka and a greek salad with traditional dressing. It had been so long since I'd had moussaka, my mouth watered while I sipped my wine in wait. Angelina's moussaka was everything I'd remembered. Like many of the delicious meals I find while traveling, I made mental notes on the taste, texture and resolved to replicate it when I got home.

I scoured the internet for recipes that would combine the taste memory with ease of preparation. I discovered there just isn't a shortcut method to moussaka. With my three eggplants, my ground beef and red potatoes as essentials, I picked and chose from recipes until I came up with this. While I enjoyed the whole combination, from breadcrumb base to bechamel sauce topping, my husband preferred the meat and potatoes sans bechamel.

Here's the recipe. If you try it, please post a comment to tell me how you liked it.

Requires 3-4 eggplants, 1 1/2 lbs of ground meat.
Preparation time: 2 hours

Meat filling:
1 1/2 lbs ground beef (or lamb)
1 eggplant
2 large onions, chopped fine
8 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 cup red wine
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley (I use cilantro)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1 bayleaf, crushed into sauce
1 24 oz can of tomato puree
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper

Vegetable and cheese layers:
2-3 eggplants
1 lb potatoes (I used three large red potatoes for smooth consistency)
1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs
1 cup grated Kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese (I used blend of Parmesan and Romano)

Bechamel Sauce:
1/2 cup salted butter (1 stick)
1 cup flour
4 cups milk
4 eggs, beaten
1/8 cup Kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese (I used blend of Parmesan and Romano)
1/2 tsp salt
Pinch of ground nutmeg

Prep eggplant:
Begin with the eggplants. With a sharp peeler or paring knife, peel 1-inch strips about 1 inch apart down the length of each eggplant. Slice the eggplant about 1/4 inches thick. The moussaka cooks best when the excess moisture is pressed from the eggplant. To do this, lightly salt each slice, then lay the slices upon a very absorbent towel about three-slices high. Lay a cookie sheet upon the slices and weigh it down evenly at each corner. This will press much of the water that can make the moussaka layer too watery.

Boil Potatoes:
Next, place the potatoes into a pot of water, cover and bring to a boil. Lower temperature to medium and cook potatoes until soft, but not mushy.

Cook the meat filling:
While eggplant is being pressed and potatoes are boiling, begin the meat filling. Sauté the onions and garlic in the olive oil in large skillet until transparent. Add meat and brown into small chunks. Before adding spices, drain off excess fat from the meat. Sprinkle in the cinnamon, allspice, oregano, salt, pepper, and mix well. Mix in the tomato puree and lower temperature to simmer. Stir in the wine and sugar, then crumble the bay leaf into the mixture. While the meat filling is simmering, take 6 to 8 of the eggplant slices, and cut them into cubes. Add parsley (cilantro) and eggplant cubes into meat filling and stir them into sauce. Allow meat sauce to simmer until most of the moisture is reduced.

Bake the eggplant slices:
While meat is browning, lay the eggplant slices on greased cookie sheets. Bake eggplant at 450 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until slices are soft.

Prepare the béchamel sauce:
While meat filling is simmering, begin preparing the béchamel sauce. Begin by melting butter in large saucepan. Whisk the salt and flour into the butter until smooth. Stir in the milk and cook until thickened to consistency of gravy. Pull off stove before boiling. Add the cheese and pinch of nutmeg and set aside to cool to touch. While the white sauce is cooling, begin preparation of vegetable layers. You will add the beaten eggs once the béchamel sauce is cool, just before ladling over finished layers.

Assembling the layers:
Spray large lasagna pan with vegetable oil. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly across bottom of pan. Slice potatoes about 1/4 inches thick and overlap them across bottom of pan. Lightly sprinkle potato layers with grated cheese. Layer and overlap the baked eggplant slices across the potato layer. Sprinkle the eggplant layer with the shredded cheese. Ladle the meat filling over the eggplant evenly.

Finish layers with béchamel sauce:
When white sauce is cool to touch, whisk the beaten eggs into the cooled white sauce. Gently ladle over the prepared moussaka layers.

Bake moussaka for 45 minutes or until béchamel sauce is puffy and evenly browned.