Tuesday, November 20, 2012


A traditional Greek dish made with aubergine (eggplant), minced meat and béchamel sauce, right?
Well, not quite. Unless you would want to call a dish that was invented somewhere in the beginning of the 20th century a traditional dish, that is.

Moussaka, or in Greek: mousakas (μουσακάς), was actually thought up by a famous chef in Athens in the 1920's. His name was Nikolaos Tselementes. Universally seen as the great modernizer of the Greek cuisine, this guy was so revered that his name (Tselementes) is used as a synonym for cookbook until this day.

Probably based on old Ottoman and Arabic recipes of cold vegetable stews with baked aubergine and onions, Tselementes, in a stroke of genius, came up with the typical three layer dish of fried aubergine and minced meat, topped with béchamel sauce and baked in the oven. In reference to its cold Arab ancestor, Moussaka in Greece is mostly served lukewarm.

Our version of Moussaka is a slight variation based on some new versions of the dish as seen in Greece today, including a layer of fried potatoes and with some cheese added to the béchamel to boost the flavor. Of course also including a few of our own tips here and there to make it come out just right. So let's get started!


Serving 6-8 people
3 large aubergines (eggplants)
1 kg waxy potatoes
1 kg of minced meat (half beef, half pork)
1 can (400gr) of diced tomatoes
2 onions
4 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
1 stick of cinnamon
2 star anise (optional)
pepper and salt
1 glass of red wine
1 tbsp cooking oil

For the béchamel sauce:

100 gr butter
120 gr flour
750 ml milk
50 gr grated Gouda cheese
50 gr grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Freshly ground nutmeg
salt, white pepper

You'll need a large baking dish, e.g. 28 x 24 x 5 cm.

Start with the aubergines. There's tons of recipes on the web, but only a few mention the best way to prepare aubergines. Because of the high water content we need to get some of that out via a process called 'degorging'. This will not only draw out some of the water but also make the aubergines more firm when cooked and boost the flavor. To do this, cut your aubergines in thick slices, approx 2 cm, leaving the skin on.

Put them on a tray and sprinkle them liberally with coarse sea salt. Leave to rest.

After 20-30 minutes, little puddles of water will have appeared on the aubergines. Turn and repeat the process on the other side.

When both sides are done, rinse thoroughly to remove the salt.

Quickly pat the aubergines dry with a clean towel or kitchen paper.

Brush the slices lightly on one side with some olive oil.

I'm using a grill pan, but you can also do this in a non-stick pan. Bake the aubergines on both sides over medium high heat. Do not use any salt as there will be some salt left from the degorging. Also, do not add any more oil. You will find that because of this process, the aubergines are a lot less spongy and do not soak up as much oil or go mushy when they are cooked. And they are VERY tasty! Keep the aubergine slides on a plate until its time to assemble the moussaka.

While the aubergines are degorging, start with frying the minced meat in small portions over high heat. In this case there was a lot of fat and liquid coming from the minced meat. Of course we don't want that fat in our Moussaka. It's not healthy and would make our dish way to fatty and soggy.

For this reason I never start with onions and add the meat later, like so many recipes tell you to do. If there would have been onions in there, they would have already soaked up most of that fat and it would have been impossible to get rid of.

But this way, you can make sure to fry until all fat has rendered from the meat. Pour into a colander to drain the fat away. Keep aside.

Finely chop the onions and sweat them over medium high heat. Once the onions start to go translucent, add the finely minced garlic and the pieces of star anise. Continue to fry for 2-3 minutes or until the onions are fully translucent. You will find star anise in the oriental food store.

Add the cinnamon stick, bay leaves, diced tomatoes and the glass of red wine. Forget about using so called 'cooking wine'. Only use reasonably good wine that you would drink and still have a smile on your face. Add a little salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir and simmer for a few minutes.

Add the meat back to the pan. Do not add any more liquid. We are preparing minced meat to go into the moussaka, not a sauce. We need some firmness in our end result. Think lasagna type of consistency.

Cook the minced meat over medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes. These smells will have you dreaming of the Aegean in an instant!

After this, most liquid has evaporated, but we need to give it another kick. Remove the star anise, bay leaves and the stick of cinnamon. Turn the heat to high and firmly fry the meat while constantly stirring  for a couple of minutes. Make absolutely sure all surplus moisture is gone. The end result should look like this with no liquid left in the bottom of the pan whatsoever. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from the fire and keep the meat aside.

Don't peel  the potatoes but rinse under running water, scrub if needed to remove any sand and dirt. The point of not peeling the aubergines and the potatoes is that the skin holds a lot of flavor and that's what we like to keep in our dish at Discover Great Taste!

Slice your potatoes slightly thinner than the aubergines, approx 1,5 cm.

Again wash the potato slices thoroughly, removing any starch. Remove from the water and dry with a clean towel or kitchen paper.

Fry the potatoes on both sides in vegetable oil or mild olive oil. Never use extra virgin olive oil for frying. It will burn and taste way to strong.
Cook the potatoes until almost done. You want them to still be a little firm when you assemble the moussaka. They will finish cooking in the oven.

When done, put them on some kitchen paper to get rid of excess oil. We are creating a lean dish here, people! Sprinkle with a little salt and keep until we have made our béchamel sauce.

Now here comes the part that is most difficult in this recipe. For some reason, white sauce or béchamel is a daunting task to a lot of people. But rest assured, if you stick exactly to my guidelines, you cannot fail. We'll divert a little bit from the classic béchamel, which is made with milk infused with bay leaves, parsley, peppercorn, etc. To start the béchamel sauce for the moussaka, first grate your cheese. As we cannot buy Greek Halloumi cheese in the Netherlands, I use a mix of Gouda and Pecorino Romano. Freshly grated of course. It's much better than the packaged stuff. You can also use your favorite cheese of course, e.g. Cheddar or Monterey Jack.
Technically, when you add cheese to the béchamel, it becomes a sauce 'Mornay'.

Then for the roux. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt your butter, making sure it does not take any color. All water should evaporate from the butter. You can tell this has happened by listening. When all the crackling and popping sounds stop, that's when the water has gone. By the way, this is also a way to tell if you have good quality butter: more water is a sign of less quality.

Add the flour in one go. Use a whisk to gently mix flour and butter.

Cook the flour and butter for 2-3 minutes while constantly stirring. This will burn in an instant, so do not walk away! You can tell your flour is ready when it's starts to smell like cooked pie crust.

Add half a cup of COLD milk and stir until all the milk is absorbed. Do not get scared if you get huge lumps. As long as you use cold milk, you'll be OK. Add the next half cup of milk and stir again until all liquid is absorbed. Repeat 4 times. Then its safe to add the rest of the milk in one go. Stir until you get a silky, smooth sauce. I stress the milk needs to be cold for a guaranteed lump free result. Do not believe those other recipes that have you slowly adding warm milk.. it is much more difficult.

Once the sauce comes back to a simmer, it's ready. Turn down the heat and add 2/3 of the grated cheese and some freshly ground nutmeg. Do not use the stuff in the jar that you bought in the twentieth century. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Be careful with the salt, the pecorino is already very salty.

Gently mix and simmer for another 1-2 minutes, adding more milk if needed. Be careful not to bring the sauce to a boil after the cheese is added - it will split! It's hard to say exactly how much milk you should use, as there are many influencing factors. In this case, about 750 ml milk gave a perfect result. Your béchamel should have the consistency of a nice custard pudding, not to thick, not to thin. This is where your skill and experience as a cook comes into play.

Finally we're ready to assemble our moussaka! Pre-heat your oven to 190 Celsius  Lightly butter your oven dish to start. I skipped the next step, but you shouldn't: sprinkle the bottom of the oven-dish with a thin layer of bread-crumbs. This will absorb any moisture coming from the other layers while the moussaka is in the oven.

Arrange the potato slices like little roof-tiles. Then cover with the aubergines in the opposite direction.

When finished with the aubergines, gently press the layers down using some kitchen paper.

Cover with the meat, making sure not to disturb the layers beneath.

Carefully add the béchamel. Use a spatula to cover the whole dish.

Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. Carefully shake and tap the dish, making sure there is no air-bubbles trapped below.

Bake in an oven at 190 Celsius for 40 minutes until golden brown. If the béchamel browns to quickly, turn down the heat to 170 and add 5 minutes of cooking time.

And then comes the hardest part: leave to rest for at least 20 minutes. The dish is to hot to eat anyway. Leaving it to cool down a little bit, will firm up the layers, making it easier to serve. And remember, the Greek eat this dish lukewarm.

To serve, cut portion size squares using a sharp knife.

And gently scoop out using a flat spatula.

No dish containing this much béchamel sauce can be called lean, but I think we have still kept the calories reasonably at bay by using a couple of simple techniques to lower the fat content. 
As you can prepare this dish a day ahead, it is the ideal party dish or a nice alternative to your Christmas lasagna.

Moussaka is a main course by itself. It does not really need side dishes, but I like to serve it with a nice fresh salad. The feta cheese in the picture was intended as an appetizer.

You can make many variations, for instance by adding other vegetables or making it a vegetarian dish altogether. Some add Greek yogurt to the béchamel to make it more creamy. Let me know what you came up with and how it turned out in the comment section below. I'd love to hear.


No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...