I call my version of Traditional Moussaka “Archie and Mehitabel’s Moussaka” after the eponymous Don Marquis’ roach and alley cat duo. But more on roaches later…
As for Moussaka, I learned to love it after first having it at the Shreveport, LA St. George’s Greek Orthodox church Easter fundraiser where I was also introduced to pastichio and ekmekkatafi.
Now back to roaches (the kind that crawls, not the kind you find in your ashtray).
Moussaka in Astoria, Queens
Once upon a time, a hungry girl went to a Greek restaurant for a carafe of retsina, a salad, and a soul-satisfying hunk of moussaka made as only a true Greek can. At least that was the plan.
It started out well. The day was sunny and crisp, the retsina cold, and the salad was a flawless mix of greens and grilled calamari. So far so good. Finally, the waiter arrived with a fragrant slab of moussaka which said girl, with her retsina stimulated appetite dove into. Did I mention that she was alone? Did I mention that because she was alone she was reading the paper and had removed her glasses? No? Well, she had removed her glasses, which is why the large brown oval-shaped form which she saw in the moussaka appeared at first to be a toasted nut. She leaned in closer to determine what kind of a nut it was, but upon closer inspection the “nut” proved to have long feelers and crooked spiked legs.
In fact, the “nut” was a mature roach. Probably had a family in the walls somewhere nearby. Sadly, Daddy met his end. The hungry girl did not over react. She just waited for the waiter to return and catching sight of him executed a two-fingered Cary Grant-like beckoning motion. The waiter approached. The girl wordlessly pointed at the insect garnished casserole.
Waiter, “Hmm, that’s a big one.”
Waiter, “So, You want I should bring you another piece?”
Girl, “From the same pan?”
Waiter, “Just one pan today lady.”
Girl, “Check please.”
BTW – never got the check because the owner comped me. But it had a happy ending. After retailing this story at the office, I was later gifted with a version of the recipe below in my inbox. It came from a Greek lady in accounting and tastes a lot like the ones from St. Georges in Shreveport. So all’s well that ends….without a roach. So let’s get started:
As for the actual prep work on this dish it’s helpful if you think of it as analogous to an exercise in business school project management. It’s broken down into three parts plus the final assembly. Keep in mind that things flow more smoothly when you concentrate on one step at a time.
First you make the meat sauce and if you can swing it, doing it the night or day before speeds your way. If you don’t have the pale sultana raisins the dark ones will do fine. And if you don’t worship the lamb (so to speak), you can substitute ground beef or a mix of ground beef and ground pork.
When precooking the eggplant and potatoes you want to remember that they should be undercooked. They’ll finish after they are in the casserole for the final cook. If, however, you get distracted and they go a little too long – don’t worry. Your sins will be well covered by the bechamel sauce on top.
This particular version of bechamel may render a little more sauce than you need, but remember, it’s always better to have more sauce rather than less since you want to avoid those bald spots on the top. I include beaten egg whites in the mix because, a) otherwise they’re wasted, and b) they make the topping puff up nicely.
So here you have it. The slightly overwhelming, but not if you break it up into smaller parts, recipe for roach-free moussaka (with a side of Orange Arugula Salad).
And last but not least I have to put in a plug for retsina wine. Most non-Greeks have never tried it and that’s a mistake. It’s like a crisp Graves with a pine needle chaser. You’ll either like it or you won’t but at least try it – and it’s perfect with moussaka. All versions are good but Kourtaki is my favorite and it’s the cheapest.
- For the meat sauce:
- 1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
- ¼ cup sultanas
- 4 T. olive oil
- ½ lb. ground lamb (or ground chuck)
- pinch cayenne
- ¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp. ground cloves
- ½ tsp. ground allspice
- ½ tsp. oregano (or Greek seasoning)
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
- ½ cup red wine
- For the Vegetables:
- 1 lb eggplant cut into ¼ inch thick slices
- 1 1 lb russet potato peeled & cut into ¼ inch thick slices
- For the Bechamel sauce:
- 6 T. butter
- ½ cup flour
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 bay leaf
- nutmeg to taste
- ½ cup plain full fat Greek yogurt (or sour cream)
- 2 large eggs, separated
- ½ cup grated Parmesan
- For the meat sauce:
- Soak sultanas in hot water.
- Heat olive oil and fry lamb with spices till lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Remove the lamb with a slotted spoon to drain off the oil, but leave the remainder of the oil in the pan.
- In the same pot saute the garlic, onion, bell pepper till soft, about 10 minutes.
- Add the wine and cook till almost evaporated, about 15 minutes.
- Add tomatoes, sultanas, and drained lamb and simmer for about 20 minutes.
- For the vegetables:
- Slice eggplant & place on a lightly oiled cookie sheet, oil the tops, cover with foil and put in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes or until somewhat soft.
- Soak sliced potatoes in water for 5 minutes. Drain water and boil until tender.
- For the bechamel sauce:
- Melt the butter and stir in the flour. Let it cook for a minute or so. It should still be pale.
- Beat egg yolks into milk and add slowly to the roux. Be sure and maintain a low heat while the sauce thickens. This will happen quickly so don't step away. Once it thickens, cut the heat off.
- Add salt, pepper, bay leaf and nutmeg. Cover the pan and let it sit for a few minutes.
- Stir in the yogurt.
- Beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Remove the bay leaf and fold the egg whites into the bechamel sauce. Set aside.
- Layer the potato slices over the bottom of a buttered casserole dish.
- Cover with the meat sauce.
- Layer the eggplant slices over the meat sauce pressing down a little to make sure they have liquid from the sauce to flavor them.
- Spoon the bechamel sauce over the eggplant, dust top with grated Parmesan, and cook in a 350 oven for 30 minutes.
This very rich dish is great with an arugula salad.