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Mmmm. . . Moussaka November 3, 2009

Posted by Toy Lady in Cooking, Food, random stuff.
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I remember the first time I ever tasted moussaka.  (I should – it wasn’t all that long ago!)  I was at a friend’s office Christmas party – a luncheon held at The Olive Tree – and my friend assured me that I’d like it.

It’s kind of an eggplant casserole with some kind of meat and a topping.  You’ll like it.

With a description like that (as well as the waiter patiently waiting for me to order), how could I resist?

Fortunately, this was one of the better restaurants in town, and the moussaka was fabulous.  (As was the baklava, but that’s a different story.)

So I’ve tried it again, here and there, and I’ve tried making it a few times.

PhotobucketEventually, I happened upon a recipe that, while not the same as what I had all those years ago, was certainly worth eating – and it was in The Beautiful Cookbook, of all places!  I mean, I don’t think I know anyone who’s ever actually cooked something from one of those books – mostly people just look at the pictures, right?

So anyway, I tried the Beautiful moussaka recipe, and it was . . . really good!  And it was also . . . a LOT of work!

In the years since then, I’ve come to a couple of conclusions.

First, most the best cooks (I’m not talking “chefs” here – I’m talking about regular people who cook regular food that is eaten by regular families) I think most of the best cooks just . . . cook.  They don’t necessarily always follow recipes.  They may have guidelines, and they certainly rely on their experience and judgment.

That, and no matter what you cook, you get out of it what you put into it.  If you want a good moussaka, you should prepared to spend a good part of the day in the kitchen with it, so you might as well make a big pan of it, because you’re not going to do it often!

So when I took my vacation a couple of weeks ago, I decided, since it was the tail end of eggplant season anyway, that I wanted to take one day and make moussaka.  And I promptly bought a basket of the cutest little eggplants I’ve seen in a long time!

PhotobucketPeeling eggplants is usually considered “optional” – the skins don’t bother me, but they do bother Peeps.  Who am  kidding?  He doesn’t care for eggplant, skins or not.  But he likes it even less with the skins.  So I peeled my wee baby eggplants in a nifty stripy pattern.  Cool, huh?

I followed standard eggplant protocol here – slice the eggplants, lightly salt, and let them drain until roughly a gallon of water drips out.  (I kid about the gallon of water – but it was probably close to a cup!)  Then rinse, squeeze, and toss with a bit of olive oil.  Then the eggplant slices got roasted in the oven until they were, well, roasty.

PhotobucketMeanwhile (and there are going to be a lot of “meanwhiles” in this!), I started the meat filling, since it’s going to have to simmer for a while.

I started with a couple of pounds of lean ground beef  and a good-sized onion, diced (if I’d been able to find lamb at a reasonable price, I’d have used that, but I couldn’t, so I didn’t) and browned it in a decent-sized pan.  Once browned (and drained), I added a couple of cloves of garlic and a couple of Tablespoons of tomato paste, then a pint of tomatoes, some chopped kalamata olives, a goodly handful of dried oregano (Greek, of course!), a couple of bay leaves, a heaping teaspoon or so of cinnamon, and a little salt and pepper (remember the olives – go easy with the salt!).  Bring the sauce up to a simmer, then move it to the back burner and let it just simmer there until you’re ready for it.

At some point, you’ll want to check for seasonings – you’ll know it’s right when you taste it and can’t stop tasting it. . .

PhotobucketWhile the eggplant was roasting, and the filling was simmering, I turned my attention to some potatoes, for a couple of reasons.  First, while Peeps is not a big fan of eggplant, he is a big fan of potatoes, and potatoes are often used with, or even instead of, eggplant in moussaka.  Plus, even though it seemed like a lot, a basket of little tiny eggplants doesn’t yield much in the line of eggplant slices – not nearly enough for a big pan of moussaka.

I did fry the potato slices – I’ve tried roasting them, and I just don’t care for the way they came out.  Slice two russet potatoes potatoes very thin (1/4 to 1/3 inch slices), soak in cold water for a while, pat dry, and fry in batches, then drain well.

PhotobucketAnd we’re almost there!  What makes moussaka such a wonderfully decadent, amazing dish, for me, anyway, is the custard-like topping.  Mostly, it’s called “the bechamel,” and it is that – and so much more.  True, it starts out as your basic bechamel – flour and butter roux, warmed milk, a little salt, pepper and nutmeg.

But then.  Then I also add a handful of romano cheese (or kefalotryi), four eggs, and a couple of cups of ricotta.  This is so not your basic white sauce, is it?  No, it’s a much thicker, richer,  custardy sauce!

And one last component – a combination of some bread crumbs and romano cheese – that that help soak up any stray grease or extra liquid.  And then it’s time to put the whole thing together.

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Much like lasagna, this dish is put together in layers.  We start with a lightly greased casserole and just a sprinkling of the bread crumb – cheese mixture in the bottom.  Then all the potatoes cover the bottom.  On top of the potatoes, spread the meat sauce.  Then sprinkle the rest of the bread crumb mixture, then the eggplant slices.  Lay the eggplant so the edges are touching and there are as few spaces as possible – the eggplant will help keep the sauce on top of the casserole!

And speaking of the topping, gently pour the sauce over everything and then into a 350° oven until the topping is nicely browned – about an hour.

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Please resist the urge to eat this right away – you’re going to want to let it set for a few minutes (at least 15 minutes!) before trying to serve it.  You may want to think about how next time, you’ll say the heck with the extra potato step and just buy more eggplant.  And the eggplant you do buy will be full-sized so the slices don’t float in the cream sauce. . .

Or you may want to just leave the room so you won’t be tempted to grab a spoon.

I actually baked it early in the afternoon and left it until dinner time – when it was time for dinner, it was easy to cut into neat squares and nuke them for just a couple of minutes until they were hot.

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And remember how I suggested a large pan? You’re going to have leftovers.  Lots of them.

But that’s OK.  It reheats beautifully.  And, since you so patiently waited to cut it into tidy little squares, you can also individually wrap the slices and freeze them.   I wrap each cold slice first in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil.  To reheat for lunch, I unwrap a hunk and place the frozen block in a microwave container and let it partially thaw until lunch, then nuke it for about 2-3 minutes.

Then I spend the rest of the afternoon complaining about how I don’t want to do any work. . .

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