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Melitzanes Moussaka

Moussaka (Greek layered meat and eggplant casserole)

(Greek layered meat and eggplant casserole)

Image Creative Commons by John Ong

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Moussaka is a dish found in various forms throughout the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans. The one thing most versions have in common is eggplant, but apart from that, moussaka can be served hot or cold, sauteed or baked, with meat or as a vegetarian meal.

Greek moussaka (moo-sah-KAH) is perhaps the most quintessentially Greek of all dishes, although it is actually a relatively recent addition to that country's cuisine. A flavorful and filling casserole of layered meat, eggplant and bechamel sauce, classic Greek moussaka was first cooked up in the 1920s by the great Greek chef Nikolaos Tselementes.

The recipe is not difficult, but it does take a bit of time and preparation, making moussaka perfect for a Sunday evening meal, a potluck buffet or a special dinner with family and friends.

6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

  • Eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch rounds -- 3 pounds
  • Salt and pepper -- to season
  • Olive oil -- 1/4 cup

Meat Sauce

  • Olive oil -- 2 to 3 tablespoons
  • Onion, chopped finely -- 1
  • Garlic, minced -- 2 or 3 cloves
  • Ground lamb or beef -- 2 pounds
  • Ground cinnamon -- 1 1/2 teaspoons
  • Ground allspice -- 1/2 teaspoon
  • White or red wine (optional) -- 1/2 cup
  • Tomatoes, chopped -- 1 cup
  • Tomato paste -- 2 tablespoons
  • Parsley, chopped -- 2 or 3 tablespoons
  • Salt and pepper -- to taste

Bechamel Topping

  • Butter -- 4 tablespoons, or 1/4 cup
  • Flour -- 1/3 cup
  • Milk -- 2 cups
  • Kefalotiri or parmesan cheese, grated -- 1/2 cup
  • Salt and white pepper -- to taste
  • Egg, beaten -- 1

Method

  1. Season the eggplant rounds with salt and pepper and brush them lightly on both sides with the 1/4 cup of olive oil. You can then either saute the eggplant rounds in a skillet with a little oil until browned on both sides, or you can broil them on a baking sheet in the oven until lightly browned, turning to make sure each side gets color. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  2. To make the meat sauce, heat the 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high flame. Add the onion and garlic and saute until the onions soften and turn translucent. Add the ground meat, cinnamon and allspice and saute until the meat is cooked through, using a spatula to break the meat up. Spoon out and discard any extra fat from the skillet.
  3. Stir the wine into the meat and simmer until the liquid is reduced. Next stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes. Adjust seasoning to taste and set aside to cool.
  4. To start the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low flame. Whisk in the flour to form a smooth mixture and continue whisking to allow the flour to cook a bit without browning, about 1 to 2 minutes.
  5. Whisk the milk into the roux, beating constantly to remove all lumps. Bring the sauce to a slow boil, whisking continuously as the sauce thickens and scraping the bottom of the saucepan to make sure it does not burn.
  6. Remove the bechamel sauce from the heat. You can strain it through a sieve at this point if you want to remove any remaining lumps. Whisk the grated cheese into the sauce until it melts completely and becomes smooth. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. After the sauce has cooled for a bit, beat in the egg.
  7. Preheat oven to 350°F. To assemble your moussaka, lightly grease a 13x9x2-inch casserole dish. Place 1/3 of the eggplant rounds in a layer on the bottom of the casserole. Next spread 1/2 of the meat sauce evenly over the eggplant. Lay another 1/3 of the eggplant in a layer over the meat sauce, and then top with the remaining meat sauce. Finish with a top layer of the remaining eggplant rounds. Finally, spread the bechamel sauce evenly over the eggplant.
  8. Place the moussaka in the preheated oven and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the moussaka is heated through and lightly browned on top. Remove from the oven, and set aside to cool for 15 to 20 minutes. This resting period is important to keep the moussaka from falling apart when you serve it.
  9. Use a sharp knife to cut the moussaka into squares and serve with a side salad.

Moussaka Variations

  • Meat Sauce Seasonings: Cinnamon is the most common seasoning for the meat sauce, but try adding grated nutmeg or ground cloves to vary the flavor. A big pinch of sugar is sometimes added to the sauce to round out the acidity.
  • Moussaka with Potatoes: Substitute a pound of potatoes, thinly sliced, for 1 pound of the eggplant. Cook the slices briefly in salted, boiling water until they are about half cooked. Then drain and rinse to cool. Use the potatoes in place of the middle layer of eggplant.

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