Some things in life are inevitable. Put enough eggplants in a person’s CSA share and something Greek like the ubiquitous Moussaka itself is certain to appear eventually!
Does Moussaka need an introduction, really? Made well, it is an incredible dish with the richness of a stew and the full satisfaction of summer. And I swear, made well, it will make eggplant lovers out of anyone. Follow the recipe below, because of the grilled eggplant, and I challenge most people to even know eggplant is in the dish. Moussaka is really akin to a Greek version of shepherds pie or even a gluten-free version of lasagna … that is, if you can pull off the custard on top without wheat flour.
I promised a few months ago when I took my own CSA challenge to post my recipes in all their glory … or their failure. This is a recipe that is a bit of both but please don’t stop reading or dismiss this recipe on that account. The failure is really in the picture that shows an ample but relatively mediocre béchamel on top. Why the mediocrity? Because I tried (and failed) to substitute cornstarch in my béchamel instead of my tried and true wheat flour. I should have known better if I’d thought through the substitution. I’ve made this custardy top dozens of times with with wheat flour and with brilliant success … but out of respect for Anne, I tried to make this gluten-free. The cornstarch worked well to create a thick and absolutely tasty béchamel — but this isn’t a normal béchamel because even made with wheat flour, it is the whipped egg whites that allows this top layer to go on thick and retain a light and grandiose height all the way to the plate. But without a stronger starch, my attempt fell right out of the oven and the picture shows the result. While very tasty, it has an unimpressive height compared to what I usually produce which is 4-5 times higher. This (lack of) result is important to me because having been to Greece twice and eaten a lot of authentic moussaka, I personally think that the perfect moussaka has a light custard topping and does not contain the heaviness of potato as a crust. If you’re not gluten-sensitive, follow the recipe below — if you are gluten-sensitive, well, you have two choices: use corn starch and accept the small rise in your custard or do your own experiment and come up with another solution. If you do: please report back and tell me what you did.
The fact is, though, the aesthetic of the custard aside, the flavours of this moussaka were the best I’ve ever produced or eaten, which I largely attribute to the added technique to grill the eggplant first. Eggplant has a longer cooking time than the other ingredients, so the moussaka won’t succeed unless you precook it, regardless. That is fact #1. Most traditional techniques will have you either pan fry it (which requires a LOT of oil to accomplish) or to bake it, which requires a longer time and still a fair amount of oil. Grilling produced a dryer product (non-slimey eggplant, to be blunt) with a fraction of the oil, and a deeper flavour. Also, on account of the season (read: tomato season), I made my own crude fresh tomato sauce which has no added salt or bitterness. I also misjudged the contents of my freezer, so I used 100% organic ground beef. My preference is for a mix of lamb and veal, but pork also works instead of the veal in this combination, just be careful of the extra fat. The beef I used was surprisingly good and also lean. The result should make moussaka converts out of the world … but I’m hoping at least my blog followers. Enjoy … and Opa!
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Total time: 2 hours
- 2-3 medium eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into 1/4 inch thick slices
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil olive
- 600grams lean ground beef, lamb or pork (ideal: 300g lamb plus 300g veal)
- 2 onions (2 cups), chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon fresh Greek oregano
→ 1 teaspoon dried
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
- 2-3 fresh tomatoes ~ 1½ cups, chopped tomatoes
→ or 1 can (250mL ~ 8oz) tomato sauce
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar (to taste)
- 1/2 cup red wine
- salt and pepper (to taste)
For the béchamel:
- 2 cups milk, warmed
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
→ or to make this gluten-free, use cornstarch but see introduction above
- salt and pepper
- 4 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan or pecorino
→ divide the cheese 3+1
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- Slice eggplant into 1cm (1/4″ or slightly thicker) slices.
Layer the eggplant on top of a paper towel and sprinkle with salt. Cover with another layer of paper towel, then more eggplant, salt, and paper towel, until all eggplant is salted and covered. Let stand for about 40 minutes to remove as much excess water (and bitterness) from the eggplant as possible.
- To make fresh tomato sauce, wash and core the tomatoes and coarsely chop them into a microwave-safe measuring cup. The sauce is “crude” because I didn’t remove the skin or seeds.
Microwave for approximately 2 minutes on high. Pour out the excess ‘water’ that has been produced and puree with an immersion-blender or use a food processor until smooth.
Set aside and, voila, 1½ cups of chopped tomatoes becomes a cup of thick tomato sauce.
- Make the the meat filling. Heat a stainless-steel frying pan over medium-high heat and add the olive oil and the chopped onions. Saute for 5 minutes.
Add the ground meat and continue to cook until meat is completely cooked and browned.
Add in the garlic and saute 1 minute more. Add the cinnamon, cumin, and chopped fresh oregano and cook 1 more minute. Add in the tomato paste and mix. Add the salt and pepper to taste and mix all together. Add sugar to taste only if there is a bitterness to the mixture — this is usually caused by the tomato paste concentrate. Mix in the fresh tomato sauce and the parsley and cook another 5-10 minutes until a thick gravy has formed around the meat. Remove from heat and let stand.
- Preheat barbecue to 350ºF. Remove eggplant from the paper towel and, while layering the eggplant on a large platter, brush the eggplant with olive oil. Place the eggplant on the grill and grill for about 5 minutes per side until cooked and nice grill marks appear on each side.
Remove eggplant from grill and let cool on a platter.
- Preheat your oven to 350ºF. Lightly oil a 9×13″ pan.
- Finally, make the béchamel sauce. Starting by separating the eggs, leaving the egg whites in a large bowl that you can whip them. Heat the milk in a small pot or the microwave until just below the point of boiling. Set aside.Melt the butter over medium heat and then add the flour (or cornstarch) to the butter to make a roux. Cook the roux for about 2-3 minutes until it starts to ‘rise’ and swell. Gradually start to whisk in the hot milk, whisking the roux constantly to beat out any lumps. Add more milk, whisk, and continue until all milk has been added. Season with salt and pepper and cook until béchamel comes to a near boil and the starch activates … and the sauce thickens. Grate in the fresh nutmeg. Reduce heat to low. Add 3 tablespoons of the cheese and season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, beat the egg whites until peaks start to form. Set aside.
Beat the egg yolks now and add a few tablespoons of the hot béchamel to the yolks to temper them. Add a few more tablespoons and whisk together. Slowly whisk the egg yolk mixture back into the béchamel and mix thoroughly and remove from heat. Now fold in the egg whites and until completely incorporated.
- In the bottom of the pan, start by layering half the eggplant and then half the meat mixture. Top with remaining eggplant and then remaining meat. Top with the béchamel. Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of grated cheese.
- Bake for 45 minutes until bechemel is risen and cooked and golden brown.
Remove from oven and let stand for about 15 minutes before cutting and serving. Serve with Greek salad or by itself and enjoy.
Wine Pairing: a rich, full-bodied red wine like a Borolo (made from Nebbiolo grapes).