The Idiot Savant

There are a few dishes that I was *made* to cook, I think -- somehow they tickle all the right parts of my culinary imagination, and I can taste them even before I make them, and they involve all the cooking skills that I'm good at. I will honestly never really be a great cook of anything that involves incorporating egg whites into a batter without having them turn watery, or sauté delicate fish fillets so they don't fall apart, or make anything too technical that requires precise measurements and cold hands, but anything involving sturdy ingredients and deep flavors I do okay with.

Tonight I decided to make moussaka, the traditional Greek eggplant-and-meat-sauce casserole. This made no sense on many levels. First: it may be that Greek eggplant season is in the winter, but here it is in the summer, and preparing a multi-step, slightly grand dish that involves at least three pots (and thus three stove burners) and then some time in the oven is perhaps not the smartest thing to do on an August evening. But it couldn't be helped: I had a vision, and some farm-fresh eggplant in the fridge. Second: I've never made moussaka before, and really I've only had it a few times, mostly not-terribly-good versions of it. But I had an idea in my mind of what it should taste like, and I've been looking at recipes for the past several years thinking that one day I would do it... Anyway. Made no sense. But really, who needs sense when you've got a craving?

The upshot: this is maybe the best thing I've ever cooked. It came out just right, and just as I'd imagined: the meat sauce rich and aromatic from Silk Road spices, the eggplant a silky and neutral background, and the béchamel topping rich and delicate.

I didn't even plan a post today. This is all very unusual for me. Sort of. Not really.

Serves 6

Meat sauce:
1.5 TB olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 lb ground lamb (preferably) or beef
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 TB hot paprika or 1/4 tsp red chili powder
1/4 tsp all spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch of ground cloves
1 bay leaf
1/4 c dry red wine
1/4 c dried currants
1.5 TB tomato paste
1/2 a 28-oz can crushed tomatoes
salt and freshly-ground pepper

2 smallish eggplants, sliced into 1/2" slices
up to 1/4 c olive oil

Béchamel sauce:
3.5 TB butter
3.5 TB all-purpose flour
3 c whole milk
1 large egg yolk
grating of nutmeg
1/3 c grated Parmesan

1. Make the meat sauce: In a large sauté pan or deep frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until brown and starting to turn golden. Add the lamb and a good pinch of salt and cook until it loses the pink color, breaking up with a spoon as you go. When the lamb has started to brown and sizzle, take the pan off the heat, push the meat and onions to one side, and tip it so that you can spoon off as much fat as possible. Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the garlic, spices, bay leaf, and another pinch of salt, and fry until the spices become aromatic. Add the red wine and currants and let the mixture bubble till the alcohol smell dissipates, then incorporate the tomato paste. After the tomato paste starts to sizzle and lose its raw color as it starts to caramelize, add the crushed tomatoes and another good pinch of salt. Let the mixture cook on a lively simmer for about 15-20 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and a deep reddish-brown. Taste for salt -- don't skimp here, because it needs to be well-seasoned to carry the dish.

2. While the meat sauce simmers, you can prepare the eggplant: In a large, non-stick frying pan, heat 1 TB olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the eggplant slices, without overlapping, and allow them to sit. At first, they will soak up all the oil, but as they brown and cook, they will start to release it so don't worry. When one side is golden-brown delicious, flip the slices and let the other side cook. (The pan should still have a little oil in it; if not, add a bit more.) When the second side is cooked, transfer slices to a plate lined with paper towels, and season with a light sprinkling of salt. Repeat with more oil and more eggplant slices till all are browned.

3. Make béchamel sauce: In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour, stirring with a whisk to incorporate well; allow to cook for a minute or two, but don't let it brown. Add 1 c milk and whisk until incorporated; it should thicken fairly instantly. Add the rest of the milk, a cup at a time, until the mixture is smooth. It will seem quite thin -- don't worry. Allow the sauce to come just to a boil, and then turn the heat to medium-low and let it go at an easy simmer until thickened, about 15 minutes. Remove from the heat. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk with a fork. Take a small ladleful of the white sauce and add to the egg, stirring with the fork as you go. Add another small ladleful, and stir with the fork. Then add the bowlful of egg yolky sauce back into the saucepan. Add nutmeg and Parmesan, stirring to incorporate. Now check for salt -- it should be lightly salted and flavorful.

4: Assemble the dish: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Put down half the eggplant in a 9x9 glass baking dish, overlapping the slices. Put the meat sauce on top, smoothing and pressing down as you go. Top with the rest of the eggplant. Top with the béchamel sauce. Place baking dish in oven, with a cookie sheet on the rack below to catch any drips. Bake for 45 minutes. After 45 minutes, the béchamel should be golden with some dark spots; if it's not, turn on the broiler and let the crusty yumminess develop.

5. Allow to stand for about 15 minutes before serving.


Nandia Vlachou said…
As a Greek, I've eaten countless versions of moussaka (the children's version, with potatoes instead of eggplant, the light version, with the eggplants not fried but put directly in the oven, and so forth), but I would never think of putting dried currants in the meat sauce! I'm also not on friendly terms with cinnamon and cloves, but I might just try your version of the meat sauce. Lamb is the traditional choice (the "right" choice) for this kind of dish, but beef is what you get most of the times. I'm glad it turned out yummy!
The spices are very subtle, I think -- a savory under note rather than sharp or prominent. I came across the idea of currants when looking through a bunch of recipes -- I liked the idea of upping the Near East feel of the sauce, and it worked beautifully. I'd be interested in hearing what you think of it!
Nandia Vlachou said…
I think I might actually try it after the holidays. You make it sound easy, especially the béchamel which I find a daunting task. I always buy from the super market, but it's too runny.
Béchamel is totally easy! You must try it yourself.
Kat said…
I was just looking through Greek recipes. This looks absolutely delicious and worth a try.