Greek Moussaka is a delicious eggplant or potato-based dish, that includes ground meat, and is baked with a top layer made of béchamel sauce.
When you start exploring more exotic foods you realize pretty soon that your local Chinese, Japanese, Greek and ethnic etc. restaurants are bastardized versions made for the North American palate. You may find the small gem family run restaurant that serves more authentic dishes or you can really find out what the true cuisine of a country is when on holiday. That is what happened to me with the Greek moussaka.
Greek food is a perfect example. When I was there many moons ago I ate grilled octopus, devoured lams stews, enjoyed moussakas and drank frappes in large quantities. No souvlakis or gyros in sight. I tell you the food and the islands there are so gorgeous I should consider moving there.
Moussaka: Not Just a Greek Dish
The Greek moussaka is believed to be invented by Nikolaos Tselementes. He was a Greek chef considered one of the most influential chefs of the early 1900s who modernized Greek cuisine and published many influential Greek cookbooks. You can tats it in the Greek Islands, all the way up north in towns near Meteora and it’s monasteries perched atop massive rock formations.
Moussaka is not solely a Greek dish but a dish of the Balkans, Eastern Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Each country and/or region has a different spin on it. The common base is sauteed eggplant, tomato, and usually minced meat. But the one we are the most familiar with is the Greek one, which is characterized by lamb meat spiced with cinnamon and a top layer of Bechamel sauce with nutmeg.
My Greek moussaka Discovery
was actually something I discovered first in a Greek restaurant in Montreal, not in Greece. I still remember the first time I ate it and immediately associated as extreme comfort food. Of course, I would choose an ethnic dish as comfort food and not something closer to home! Now when I go to a Greek restaurant, if moussaka is on the menu chances are that is what I will order. Warning: moussaka is not the most photogenic food but it is amazing.
One day I came across a recipe for Greek Moussaka. Remember the days when gas stations gave out free stuff like glasses and plastic containers? It was pretty lame stuff usually but at one point one company (can’t remember which one) was giving away a series of little cookbooks. My parents had that whole collection.
One of the books was fancy recipes for dinner parties and in it was this recipe below. I first made it about 15 years ago and I keep going back to it because it is the best moussaka I ever ate, hands down. I don’t have a source as I wrote down the recipe in a personal book a decade ago.
- 2 large eggplants
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 2 lbs. ground lamb or beef
- 2 large onions finely diced
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 1/2 tsp. pepper
- 1/3 cup fresh parsley chopped
- 1 cups plain breadcrumbs
- 1 cup grated Parmesan
- 1/4 cup butter
- 1/3 cup flour
- 4 cups milk
- 4 eggs lightly beaten
- 2 cups cottage cheese
- 1 tsp. nutmeg
- Slice the eggplants in to 1/2 inch slices. Lay the slices of eggplant on paper towels, sprinkle lightly with salt, and set aside for 30 minutes to draw out the bitterness. In a skillet over med-high heat, heat 1 tsp. approx of olive oil per batch. Quickly fry the eggplant until browned. Set aside.
- In a skillet heat the remaining olive oil, add onion and saute until semi-translucent. Add the ground lamb (or beef) and brown until the pink color disappears. Add garlic and cook 1 minute. Add wine, tomato paste, cinnamon, salt and pepper, bring to a boil and allow to simmer for approx 15 minutes. Add the parsley.
- In a 9x13 inch baking pan, sprinkle evenly half the breadcrumbs, layer half the eggplant slices, spread half the meat sauce and sprinkle half the grated Parmesan. Repeat. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- To make the Bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a pan over medium heat. Whisk in flour until smooth and allow the flour to cook for a minute. Gradually pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly until it thickens. Remove from heat and whisk in the eggs, then the cottage cheese and nutmeg. Return to heat and stir until sauce thickens.
- Pour the Bechamel sauce on top of the layers, smooth the sauce evenly with a spatula and allow the sauce to fill the sides and corners of the pan. Bake for 1 hour or until the sauce has a golden color. Allow to cool for 15 – 20 minutes before serving.