Ah, moussaka. So good. Yet, if rushed and cooked badly, it can be really bloody awful. But if you get it right there's nothing better. A decent sized one will last a family for days, and such is the way the Greeks, like the Italians, cook - with thoughts of filling bellies throughout the week ahead.
For many first time visitors to Greece, moussaka is the first dish they try. Why? Because it looks a lot like lasagna. Indeed I once heard someone say, 'Sure dat's jus' Greek lasagna!' (they were Lithuanian obviously). But it's NOT!!!! For one there's no pasta in it, at all. Secondly it's stuffed full of those suspicious shiny purple things called aubergines, or egg-plants. Thirdly the meat used is lamb, although you can use beef and I have, many times, and it's just dandy. And, then there are the spices, lots of them. I always think of Greek food as being more Middle-eastern than European, which means buckets of flavour and bags of herbs and spices. Basically, yum!
The preparation of moussaka, like the leisurely boats that used to ferry you to the Greek isles, should not be rushed. This is a weekend dish so make sure you've plenty of time (and wine). Believe me, stick to the plan and it'll all be worth it...
What you'll need: (to feed a famished family of four)
Onions - 1 or 2 - very finely sliced & chopped & 1 left whole for Bechamel
Garlic - bashed or crushed
Lamb - minced (or beef although any respecting Greek would chuck me off the Acropolis for suggesting it) - min. half-kilo, suggest 1 kilo
Tins tomatoes - 1 or 2 - decent quality
Ground Black Pepper
Dry white wine, or if not chuck in dollop of red
Red wine vinegar
Oregano - dried
Cloves 1 or 2 - bashed up with the garlic
Aubergines (the shiny purple things in the veg. section at your supermarket) - 3 or 4
Potatoes - a handful - not the floury variety
Bechamel (the white stuff on the top):
Hard Greek cheese such as Kefalograviera, Parmesan does the job just as well
Flour - plain
Bay (laurel) leaves
Cloves - 4 or 5
Salt & Pepper to taste
As mentioned, this is a labour of love. If a Greek woman, or man, ever offers to rustle you up a Moussaka they mean business...
First off - Aubergines. Here's a very excellent tip from my fellow foodie pal Merven in Rome. He has his very own food blog and it's damn good. Take a look here. Not now, later!!!! You've work to do so scroll on...
Ok, now back to the purple blighters. Slice them not too thinly, about 2 cms thick should do it. Discard the leafy bits at the end. Then, and here's the clever bit (thank Merven), lightly sprinkle them with sea salt, cover them with a tea-towel, then set them aside for about an hour. When the time's up there'll be a dark liquid which you pour off before patting dry your lovely slices. All this has the effect of taking the bitterness from the aubergine. Once that's done brush each slice with olive oil, line them up on a baking tray, or maybe two, then bung 'em in the oven at about 180 degrees for c.15 mins. When your timer bings set them to one side, take a swig of wine straight from the bottle, smash your first plate of the day, and cry, 'OPA!' And why you may ask should I do that? Well, I'll tell you. It's because you've not only been slicing, sweating, brushing and baking your aubergines. Oh no, That'd be far too easy. You've also been starting to rustle up the best damn meat sauce to be found this side of Thessaloniki. And here's how...
Heat up your frying pan, slosh in a goodly dollop of Olive Oil, bung in your diced Onion, bashed Garlic & Cloves, dried Oregano (about 2 tea-spoons), 1/2 a teaspoon of All Spice, same of ground Cinnamon and a few twists of ground Black Pepper. Let it all sizzle but not burn for about 5 minutes. The ensuing aroma will be knock-out, really amazing. You're young again, on holiday, toned, sun-tanned, desirable, happy (at this point avoid all mirrors). Maintain the delusion and once everything's nicely sizzled bung in your minced meat and fry-off until all the fat is gone, should take about 15 mins or so (Would that losing the few pounds around the gut were so easy). Then add your tinned tomatoes, about a glass of dry white wine (red will do), a splash of red wine vinegar and, if you like, some stock for flavour. Let it all boil then gently bubble. Have a taste. Season a bit more if needed.
Now, here's a nifty trick. When the mixture's simmering nicely transfer the whole lot to an oven-proof dish, one with a lid would be good or just use tin-foil. Whack it all into the oven at c. 150 degrees and set the timer for about 2 hours. Told you this was a slow burner... Do check every now & then to make sure it's not getting too dry. If so, slosh in some water, wine or stock but remember MOUSSAKA SHOULD BE SLICEABLE NOT SLOPPY. What you want at the end of all this is a good thick sauce, not a load of runny goo.
So, now back to LAYERING prep. This bit's very easy.
1. Peel a few spuds
2. Par-boil them - about 10 mins will do
2. Drain & let them cool
4. Slice them as per aubergines earlier
5. That's it
6. Swig more wine, smash another plate & cry 'OPA!'
Time for BECHAMEL:
This requires nerves of steel and a whisk. Remember too, the 'white lasagna sauce' you buy won't do here, it needs to be much thicker & 'sliceable' when all cooked through. Besides, that stuff costs a fortune & this is the real deal. Once learned never forgotten. 'OPA!'
Bung your milk, about a pint/600mls into a pan with a couple of bay leaves. Stick a few cloves in a whole peeled onion and drop that into the milky-mix. Let it all come gently to a simmer. Remove from the heat & let cool. After a few minutes strain your tepid milk into another pan. Melt a goodly amount of butter in the original saucepan (about 4 ozs) and bit-by-bit whisk in your flour - c.10 tbsps should do it. DON'T LET IT BURN. Remove from heat and gradually slosh & whisk in the milk. Whisk as a whisking-dervish, NO LUMPS ALLOWED. Add a dollop of cream if you like. KEEP WHISKING and let it all bubble for about 5 mins. Grate in a decent amount of nutmeg, ground black pepper & salt to taste. Put to one side to cool.
So that's it. The elements are all there. Now comes CONSTRUCTION:
1. Layer a large square oven-proof dish with half your aubergines
2. Dollop half your meaty-mix into the aubergines
3. Arrange your par-boiled sliced spuds over the top of that
4. Dollop next half of meat sauce onto the spuds
5. Top this off with the remaining aubergines
6. Pour on your deliciously thick bechamel
7. Grate on a very generous amount of cheese
8. Place in the oven at 160 degrees for about 45 mins
With quaking hand take another swig of wine, cry 'OPA!', smash your last plate and collapse. You've done it. Be proud.
Tzatziki, as blogged about here previously, is a must with this in my opinion, as is loads of fresh crusty bread and a Greek Salad.
Wash it all down with a medium range red - Cote Du Rhone does the job in the absence of the real deal from Paros or Santorini (damn hard to get here sadly).
So, to finish, here's my gallery of Moussaka Prep. Have a flick through, give the recipe a bash, and let me know what you think.
Until next time - Kalí órexi & Stin iyiamas!!!!
Love food, from the Sunday fry-up to Octopus mezze. If it tastes good I'll eat it. And there's so much great wine and beer out there to wash it all down with. Having said that you can't beat a pot of good strong tea with the Sunday fry.