It was the mid-70’s, living in a loft in Chelsea (NYC), then an industrial warehouse district and not the chic epicenter of the NY art world it is today. I was going to have a dinner party…in fact, my first attempt at cooking for a crowd! Not having cooked much other than ordinary fare, off I went to the bookshop on lower 5th Avenue for some inspiration. After much agonizing I happened upon Greek Cooking for the Gods, by Eva Zane; 1970. The Moussaka recipe in particular caught my eye, having spent some time in Greece several years earlier and loved the food…but then again, most of my cosmopolitan friends would probably consider the ubiquitous Moussaka a bit ordinary. Bought the book anyway! The Moussaka turned out to be a big hit and my little kitchen quickly became my “other” studio” and I never looked back!
Eva Zane’s recipe is a classic in its simplicity. I still have that book and I have tried many other Moussaka recipes, but this one remains dear to my heart! There have been a few adaptations over the years, but it is essentially the same Moussaka that I cooked back then in NY that everyone relished and ate with abandon!
MOUSSAKA Serves 6
Oven proof baking dish; oiled
Bechamel Sauce (recipe below)
Preheat oven to 375F/190C with rack in the middle position
- 2 large eggplants (about 2 pounds) unpeeled
- 1/2 cup olive oil, approximately
- 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1/2 pound minced lamb ( ground beef or pork; or a combination of)
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 18 oz can finely chopped Italian tomatoes (polpa)
- 1 fresh cinnamon stick
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano (Greek if possible)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Remove the stems from the unpeeled eggplant and cut 1/4 inch slices across the width of the eggplant . Salt both sides of the eggplant slices and place in a colander, or on a rack, and set aside to drain for 30 minutes, turning them several times while draining. Shake off excess moisture and rinse off the salt under the tap. Lightly squeeze each slice between the palms of your hands to extract excess moisture. Set the slices aside on a rack to dry out before frying.
Meat Sauce: Heat 2 tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute for several minutes until they are soft and just beginning to color. Add the lamb, or a combination of meats, and saute for 3 or 4 minutes, breaking up the meat as you cook. Add the wine and cook until reduce by half. Add the chopped tomatoes and juice, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, mint, and oregano. Season lightly with salt and pepper and simmer for 30-40 minutes over medium low heat, adding some water if the sauce becomes too thick. Tilt the pan to one side, now and again, and skim off the excess fat from the lamb that rises to the surface. Once the meat sauce is cooked, remove the cinnamon stick and season with additional salt and pepper, sparingly, as the eggplant will have some residual salt from the draining. Set aside while you cook the eggplant.
Eggplant: Heat a large frying pan (non-stick is good) over medium high heat. When hot add 2 tablespoon of olive oil, tilting the pan to coat the surface evenly. Blot the sliced eggplant with a paper towel and place in the pan in a single layer, without crowding. Fry the slices, turning several times until tender and lightly colored on both sides. Transfer the first batch of fried eggplant to the baking dish in a single layer.
Repeat the same procedure with the remaining eggplant and set aside for layering with the meat sauce.
Once you have finished cooking the eggplant, add meat sauce to the first layer of eggplant in the baking dish. Add a second layer of eggplant over the meat sauce and top with more meat sauce. Repeat layering until all the eggplant and meat sauce is in the baking dish.
Pour the bechamel sauce over the eggplant and meat sauce and even it out with a silicone spatula. Place in the oven and bake for 30 minutes or until you see juices bubbling up around the edges of the baking dish. Increase the oven temperature to 425F/220C and bake about another 10 minutes until the bechamel sauce is nicely browned on top.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes and then slice into portions and serve.
- 3 oz unsalted butter
- 3 oz flour
- 2 3/4 cups milk, hot
- 2 oz grated kefalograviera (greek cheese), grana padano, or gruyere
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- freshly ground white pepper (4 or 5 twists)
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 2 free range eggs
- 2 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
Melt the butter in a saucepan and when bubbling add the flour and whisk briskly over medium heat for 3 minutes. While whisking add half of the milk and continue whisking. The mixture will seize up at first and then smooth out as you whisk in the remaining milk.Once the mixture is thick and smooth lower the heat to a slow simmer and cook for 10 minutes while slowly whisking. Then whisk in the cheese, salt, freshly ground white pepper, and nutmeg and whisk until combined. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
In a bowl whisk together the eggs with the lemon juice and whisk the mixture into the béchamel sauce until well combined and the sauce is smooth.
Set aside to cool slightly before pouring it on top of the moussaka prior to baking.