Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Recipe: Moussaka!

Moussaka! It's almost as fun to say it as it is to eat it. I first tried this hearty dish while traveling in the Greek Isles many moons ago. Since then, I've sampled a few different recipes looking for a good base formula, but I had little luck duplicating the dish I remembered from my trip, even after tweeking some of the recipes. Then a few years after that vacation, I received The Wine Lover’s Cookbook from a friend and while thumbing through it, found a recipe titled “Best Ever” Moussaka. I followed the directions to a "T" as I most always do when trying a new recipe and after tasting this version of the hearty dish, I knew my search had ended. It truly was the “best ever” moussaka, even better, dare I say it, than that I had tasted while touring the Cyclades years before.

The key to this moussaka is the ground lamb spiked with wine and simmered in a rich tomato based sauce seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg. The sauced lamb is then layered with slices of roasted eggplant and cubes of feta cheese. It’s all topped with a creamy sauce and freshly grated Parmesan that turns a beautiful golden brown when baked. When you sink your fork into a slice, the crusty top will be noticably crisp with a fluffy, soft, nutmeg flavored layer just below that perfectly complements the flavors of the lamb.

Ok, so one-dish meals, or casseroles, are not exactly in vogue but when it’s an authentic ethnic dish like Greek moussaka and not some cheesey, Campbell’s soup laden meat and macaroni noodle dish, it can be quite fashionable, in fact it never really goes out of style. Thank goodness, because moussaka is a great dish to make for dinner guests. Besides being a crowd pleaser, it is easily prepared ahead of time. Just put in the oven about an hour before you want to serve it and enjoy a drink and some Greek mezes with your friends while it bakes.

“Best Ever” Moussaka

2 medium globe eggplants
2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 pounds ground lamb
2 yellow onions, peeled and chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fines herbes
¼ cup minced parsley
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
¾ cup red wine

½ cup plain bread crumbs
¾ pound feta cheese

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 cups whole milk
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 egg yolk, beaten

½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
Garnish: chopped parsley

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cut tops off eggplants and cut lengthwise in ¼-inch-thick slices. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and place on paper towels for 30 minutes to absorv the moisture. Rinse, wipe eggplant dry, and place in a single layer on a lightly oiled baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes.
In a large sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat, cook the lamb, onions, and garlic, crumbling the lamb with a fork and stirring frequently until browned. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain thoroughly in a strainer. Place meat mixture on paper towels and pat dry to further remove fat.
Return the meat to the cleaned pan and add remaining 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, fines herbes, parsley, and tomato paste. Stir well. Add wine and simmer for 10 minutes.
Grease the bottom of a 9 X 13 ovenproof baking dish and dust with all but 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs. Reserve remaining bread crumbs for sauce.
To make sauce, in a medium sauté pan over low-medium heat, melt butter and whisk in flour. Stir in milk, nutmeg, and salt and stir until thickened. In a separate mixing bowl, spoon a little of the hot sauce into the egg yolk and add the 3 tablespoons of reserved bread crumbs. Then, blend the egg-bread crumb mixture into the sauce. Mix thoroughly.
Layer dish first with eggplant, then meat, and then with a generous portion of feta cheese. Repeat layers and top with sauce.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Top with Parmesan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until top of cheese is golden brown. Cut into square servings. Garnish with chopped parsley.

The Wine Lover’s Cookbook by Sid Goldstein, Chronicle Books, 1999

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