Thursday, August 9, 2012

Béchamel Bliss - Moussaka

OK, I will admit it... When I was a child, I hated Eggplant.  Loathed, detested and abhorred it.  Unfortunately for me, my mother absolutely loved the it.  So much so, in fact, that we grew the vile vegetable in the garden every single year.  Eggplant here, eggplant there.. Eggplant everywhere!   Nightmares, where I was eaten my a giant eggplant, occurred quite frequently... 

Did I mention that I reviled Eggplant?

I tried to explain to my mother that since I actually liked Brussels Sprouts, Broccoli and Spinach, that I should not be forced to consume eggplant. Unfortunately, this bit of logical thinking was not in sync with my mother's belief in a well rounded diet.  In protest, I would shun the vile vegetable on my plate; refusing to submit to her dictatorial edict.  This battle of wills would last several hours.  Abandoned by the rest of the family, I would continue to sit at the table with that repugnant rutabaga wannabe mocking me from my plate.

Looking back, I realize that there was no possible way I could have ever won the war.  True to rights, after about 2 hours of staunch rebellion, I would finally give in and eat the noxiously nauseating and nefarious nightshade. (sigh)

Now that I'm an adult, I have come to regret some of my childhood willfulness, (not all of it, mind you) for it wasted a lot of my time, energy, and, as it turns out, delicious eggplant.  Yes, I said it.  Eggplant... I don't know when it happened or how it happened, but I just can't seem to get enough of it these days.

Personally, I think they have hybridized newer cultivars or improved old ones over the years.  Mom use to religiously salt the stuff and let it drain to remove the bitterness, yet it was still bitter and nasty when I was a kid.  Now, I find that salting removes the bitterness completely and, in some cases, salting isn't even necessary.  Thus, I have enjoyed many an Eggplant Rolatini, Eggplant Parmesan, Eggplant Charlotte, Eggplant Tempura and bountiful bowls of Ratatouille over the years.  But my all time favorite Eggplant dish has got to be Moussaka.

Even during my strained childhood relationship with Eggplant, I would always eat the Moussaka when mom made it.  She did resort to pureeing it the first couple of times, so I could not try to pick the eggplant out, (clever, she was) but in the long run it didn't matter.  She figured out fairly quickly that it was the ONE Eggplant dish that I would eat with no dinnertime defiance.

I think this was the very first Greek dish I was exposed to, though the origins of Moussaka as "Greek" are somewhat dubious at best.  More than likely, the dish is a spin-off of the Palestinian Musakhkan or the Turkish Musakka, for even on the Grecian peninsula, it is made differently according to locale...  In Macedonia, for instance, they layer Beef and Potatoes, then top it with a savory custard instead of Lamb and Eggplant with Béchamel.

Either way, the version that we know today, and the one than I bake, became popular until the 1920's thanks to Nicholas Tselemente.  I am assuming, since he was French, that the Béchamel topping is his doing, since I have seen some old recipes that use a yogurt and olive oil sauce on top with Kefalotyri, instead of Kasseri.  But, let us be reminded that this is really a peasant dish, like Ratatouille, and as such, it manifests with multiple modifications made by anybody and everybody that has ever prepared it over the years.  In essence, there is no wrong way or right way to make Moussaka.  You can make it all kinds of "snooty" if you want, but in the grand scheme of things, it's just down home, stick to your ribs, Mediterranean comfort food.

Me?  I am all for the Béchamel, man.  If ever there was a food that instilled rapture, it's cheese laced Béchamel.

Mom's Moussaka

Roasted Eggplant:
2 medium Eggplant, peeled and cut into 3/8 inch (10mm) slices
Olive Oil
Kosher Salt
Black Pepper

2 TB unsalted Butter
2 TB AP Flour
2 cups (475ml) Whole Milk (room temperature)
Black Pepper
2 large Eggs

Meat Sauce:
A good glurg of Olive oil
1 1/2 lb (680g) ground Lamb (or Beef, but it really looses something)
1 large Onion, chopped
Black Pepper
1/4 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp dried Oregano
1/4 tsp dried Basil
1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
2 TB Flat Leaf Parsley, chopped
3/4 cup Tomato Sauce

Meat Sauce
Roasted Eggplant
1 1/4 cup (5 oz) (140g) Kasseri cheese, grated
1/2 cup (2 oz) (57g) Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Myzithra)

Preheat the oven to 425 F degrees.
Peel the Eggplants and cut into slices of about 1/4-1/2 inch (10 mm).

Place on a large baking sheet and brush both sides of the eggplant slices with olive oil (don't be stingy with the oil, they will soak up a lot)

Season with Kosher Salt and Black Pepper.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, until eggplant slices just begin to brown.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool.
Reduce the oven to 350 F degrees.

While the Eggplant is baking, you can start the Béchamel.......
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan set over medium-low flame.

Once the butter is melted, add the Flour,

Whisk vigorously and constantly, cooking for one minute; until nice and bubbly (you only want a blonde roux)

Slowly pour in the milk, again whisking constantly to that the sauce remains smooth.

Continue cooking, whisking constantly.......

until it coats the back of a spoon, then remove from the flame.

Beat two eggs in a small bowl.

Condition the beaten Eggs by whisking in several spoonfuls of the hot Béchamel.

Then add the Eggs to the Béchamel sauce and whisk thoroughly until well combined.

Cover with plastic wrap on the surface to prevent crusting and set aside.

Now it's time for the meat sauce....
Heat Olive oil in a saute pan over medium flame.

Add the Onions and saute about 2 minutes before adding the Lamb (my lamb was pretty lean this time)

Once everything is nice and evenly browned and the onions are soft, add in the Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Oregano, Basil and Salt.

Add the Tomato sauce and bring to a simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the Parsley and simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

Remove from the flame and prepare for assembly......

Place 1/3 of the meat mixture in the bottom of a 9x13 pan.

Cover the meat by laying down 1/2 of the Eggplant slices.

Sprinkle this with about 1/2 cup of the Kasseri cheese.

Spoon 1/2 of the remaining meat mixture over the cheese.

Cover this with the remaining Eggplant slices.

Sprinkle with another 1/2 cup of Kasseri Cheese.

Spoon the remaining meat mixture over the cheese.

Now the best part, remove the plastic wrap from the Béchamel, and pour it all over the top. (It's a beautiful thing)

Smooth with a rubber spatula if necessary.

Sprinkle the remaining Kasseri over the Béchamel, then sprinkle with the Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden brown.

Let stand on the counter for about 15 minutes before attempting to cut into it.
Oh yea! THAT'S what I'm talkin' 'bout!



Spryte said...

I would consider myself not an eggplant fan... unless it's eggplant parmesan or a nice smoky baba ganoush... but now that I think about it... I've had mousakka a time or two... and it's something I keep going back for. This looks awesome! I might have to give this a try!!

Patti T. said...

That looks amazingly good. I always hated eggplant also. Have you tried the Japanese eggplants?? I grow them now and they are so good. I bet they would be great in this recipe. I love Greek food, as adults my grown children now like it also. Pass me a plate of that, please??