Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Moussaka Madness

It's dinner time.The trivet awaits a bubbling concoction from the oven. We start with soup and move on to the next course, that bubbling bake and it makes its appearance, steaming hot. We all help ourselves to heaping spoonfuls. Rehan inquires "What is this?" Since he cannot recognize it I encourage him to guess. "Shepherds Pie!" he says. "Wrong" I say. Glenn chimes in with antiquated synonyms for 'bakes'...No hits, all misses. They both poke and prod their respective dinners. "Eggplant Parmesan" is the next educated guess. Once again Rehan comes up empty. They claim the name is on the tips of their tongues. Shauna shakes her head in maddening disbelief!! Both beg her for a clue. She adamantly refuses their request, shaking her head in exasperation. I listen in consternation. How can they forget? It has only been a few months since I last made it. I am amazed by their lack of recall!!!!...And so we eat dinner with a vociferous volley of names and negations. Sadly, they are confounded and my culinary effort goes unrecognized! I say sadly because I have made moussaka MANY MANY times. And they have devoured it those past occasions!!!

I started making moussaka when I was a teenager. In those days I only made 'party dishes', not everyday food, but something fancy and painstaking. Taken from an old Hamlyn cookbook, my mum's go-to for exotic dishes, the recipe has evolved little over the years. It is still time consuming, laborious, and really rewarding. The first time I attempted it, was at a beach vacation. My friend and I volunteered to cook lunch for our families. Lunch turned to an early dinner as both of us floundered in a not-so-familiar kitchen!! While I fretted and fumed regretting my decision to slave in the kitchen, the rest of the family basked under sun-dappled palm trees. Nevertheless, lunch/dinner was a success, our families giving us a thumbs-up.  Encouraged, I made it several times, adjusting seasonings,eventually making it my own. Then, on a trip to Greece, in an obscure restaurant in the countryside, I had moussaka baked in a wood burning oven...heavenly!!!   

Nowadays I use ground lamb in place of beef. I add a heaping spoon of chile powder as we like it spicy. But for the most part I have not departed too far from the original.  Today we cook in tandem, Shauna and me. I peel and slice potatoes. The eggplant and tomatoes get the same treatment. She makes short shrift of frying them. I sauté lamb. She seasons. White sauce thickens quickly as I whisk. The assembled dish sits heavily on the counter.

Makes 4 to 6 portions

Lamb Mix
2 pounds ground Lamb
1 Onion
1 teaspoon Garlic paste
2 tablespoons Tomato paste
2 teaspoons Olive oil
1/2 teaspoon Chile powder or more if you like it spicy
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper

Vegetable Layer
4 medium sized Potatoes
1 Eggplant
2 medium sized Tomatoes
4 cloves Garlic
1/2 cup Olive oil
1 teaspoon Kosher salt

White sauce
2 teaspoons Butter
2 teaspoons Flour
2 cups 2% Milk
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground Black Pepper
1/2 cup grated Cheddar cheese

Start by making the lamb mix.

Chop onion into small pieces.

Heat oil in a saucepan and add onions. Saute for a few minutes till the edges are light brown.

Add ground lamb and stirfry, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, till it is browned and all liquid has evaporated.

Spoon in garlic paste and tomato paste making sure they meld into the mixture.

After a few minutes add the spices and seasonings and keep stirring. 

Pour in 3/4 cup water. Bring to boil and let lamb cook uncovered for 10 minutes or until the water disappears.

Tilt the saucepan at an angle and wedge it so it stays tilted that way for a few minutes. The fat and oil will pool to one side and can be easily removed with a ladle. Lamb tends to be a little on the fatty side. Retain some fat for flavor though.

Keep lamb aside till ready to assemble moussaka.

Peel potatoes and keep in a bowl of water so they do not discolor.

Pat them dry and thinly slice potatoes either by hand, a food processor or a mandoline. ( I am terrified of mandolines, and the food processor is one more thing to wash, so I use hands!)

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a non-stick pan. Put the potatoes into hot oil so that they overlap very slightly. You want them to be golden brown and slightly crisp so try not to crowd them. Slice 2 potatoes at a time to make frying easier. Repeat with the other potatoes, patting them dry before slicing. 

Lightly salt the golden brown potatoes and keep aside.

Slice the eggplant very thinly. Cut 8 to 10 slices at a time as eggplant tends to turn color when left exposed.

In the same pan used for the potatoes, add oil and heat. Use a liberal glug of oil as eggplants do soak up oil.

Lay the eggplants in a single layer in the pan and fry them till golden brown on both sides. Remove and keep on paper towels to absorb oil residue. Repeat this step with remaining eggplant adding oil as needed.

Cut tomatoes into thin slices.

Peel and crush garlic cloves.

Once again use the same pan. Add 2 teaspoons oil and heat well. 

Drop in the crushed garlic and brown for a few seconds.

Add tomatoes slices and sauté for 2 or 3 minutes.

Add the eggplant into tomato mixture and stir well.

Season with a little salt and keep aside.

Start the white sauce by dropping butter pats into a warm pan.

When butter melts, add in the flour and whisk well for 30 seconds.

Pour the milk in all at once, whisking vigorously so you do have lumps in the sauce.

Keep whisking as the milk comes to a boil and thickens.

Season with salt and pepper.

It's time to assemble! 

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Use a deep oven-proof two-quart dish. 

Start with a layer of lamb.

Top lamb with the tomato eggplant melange.

Cover eggplant with fried potatoes.

Blanket potatoes with white sauce.

Sprinkle white sauce with grated cheddar cheese.

Bake moussaka for 20 minutes.

Enjoy it hot and steaming with a salad or garlic bread.


As I said I prefer ground lamb. Ground beef works just as well. Just defat the mixture after its cooked.

Sometimes I spice up my lamb with chile powder and garam masala. It makes a nice change.

I have tried a baked version of eggplants. I have tried a broiled version too. They are pale substitutes for the pan fried version. Sorry, this isnt the low-fat version!!

On occasion I flavor my white sauce with a tinge of curry powder too.

I have seasoned each component separately. Do so carefully as it is easy to over season. 

Dinner is done. There has been no eureka moment!  Shauna and I stubbornly refuse to divulge the mystery entree. As the dishwasher is being loaded I watch Glenn hunched over his phone---undoubtedly the most prevalent pose of today. His fingers work the keyboard surreptitiously !!! After some frantic researching, recognition dawns on Glenn's face. As is the norm of this instant Information Age, Google comes to his rescue.!!!!