Greece Is the Word: A Simple Recipe for Moussaka

In Israel it’s hard to find an original version of the quintessential Greek dish, but it's easy to make in your own kitchen.

Dan Perez

In the afternoon, you could sit facing the mountains and lunch on a meat-and-eggplant casserole. You could sip some good, simple red wine from a thick glass and nibble a few tangy olives, or soak up the sauce with a slice of fresh bread. The conversation is leisurely. Or maybe you just want to listen to the rustling of the wind.

You could sit like this for quite a while and then get up, bid farewell to the taverna owner and the other regulars, and go back to the day’s tasks. Or you might stay seated there until evening, ordering another cup of tea and something sweet, or just gently tilting a glass of ouzo from side to side until the ice melts.

Every hour or so, a lone car makes its way down the street, as do a few pedestrians and a donkey without its master. The shadows on the cobblestones change as the sun plays with the leaves of the big mulberry tree and the warm afternoon gives way to a slight evening chill. You could even doze for a little while in your chair, or just close your eyes to trick the flies – and then catch them with your hand.

Dan Perez

In the afternoon, the cook comes out to the porch with a tray and sets about trimming the okra or string beans, or sifting the rice. Her wide skirt is folded between her thighs and draws the eye for a moment. The proprietress sits down next to her and they smoke and chat a little and then go back to the kitchen.

By five-thirty it’s nearly dark. It’s autumn. The string of lights above the yard is switched on and the music gets a little louder. People start to head for home. Dinner is on the table, and soon it’ll be time to go to sleep.

Authentic Greek moussaka

In our local melting pot, any dish comprising eggplant stuffed with meat has come to be called “moussaka.” But real Greek moussaka is much more than that. One reason it’s hard to find in Israel is that it doesn’t meet the laws of kashrut.

There are many different versions of the dish found in the various Balkan countries, and in Turkey it is often served with yogurt rather than béchamel sauce. But to my mind, the Greek version – baked in a wide pan and served with a loaf of sliced bread and a pitcher of cold water – is the last word in taste.

Some people like to substitute a layer of fried potatoes for the bottom layer of eggplant, and others like to add slices of fresh tomato between the layers of meat. The following recipe is my favorite: The flavor of the eggplant is prominent, and the white sauce blends with the meat in every delicious bite.

Ingredients:

4-5 large eggplants. They should be firm, smooth and shiny

1/2 cup olive oil

1 large onion

3 garlic cloves

1/2 kilo ground beef

500 gr tinned crushed tomatoes

12 sprigs parsley

leaves from 3 sprigs of thyme

1 egg

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

100 gr kefalotiri or kashkaval cheese

sea salt

black pepper

For the topping:

2 cups milk

50 gr butter

4 tbsp flour

3 egg yolks

100 ml sweet cream

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

sea salt

Trim the eggplants and cut into 1 1/2-cm-thick slices. Place the slices side by side on paper towels, sprinkle them with salt, then turn over and sprinkle salt on the other side. Let them sit for about an hour, turning them every so often, until they excrete their liquid into the paper towels. When the eggplant slices are drier and have shrunken a bit, remove the rest of the salt and use another paper towel to wipe off any excess liquid.

Heat the oil in a wide skillet and fry the eggplant slices on both sides until golden. Remove and place them in a strainer or on paper towels and let them cool a bit.

Meanwhile, prepare the meat filling: Finely chop the onion and sauté it in the skillet with three tablespoons of olive oil until golden. Slice the garlic and add it to the onion. Continue sautéing for a couple of minutes, until the garlic is slightly golden and very aromatic. Add the meat to the skillet and use a wooden spoon to crumble it with the onion. Keep simmering until the meat has lost some of its liquid and the color has turned to grayish brown.

Add the crushed tomatoes and continue simmering while stirring, until the tomato is absorbed by the meat and the mixture thickens. Turn off the heat. Chop the parsley and add it to the skillet along with the thyme. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then let cool a bit. When the meat has cooled, add the egg and mix well.

In a deep ovenproof pan, spread half the breadcrumbs and arrange half the eggplant slices so that they slightly overlap. Spread half the meat mixture on top in an even layer and press together a bit. Grate half the cheese over that, then spread the rest of the meat on top and press together once more.

Grate the remainder of the cheese over the meat and sprinkle on the remainder of the breadcrumbs. Cover with a tight layer of eggplant slices so that the meat is fully covered.

Preparing the white sauce:

In a saucepan, heat the milk almost to boiling point; set aside. Melt the butter in a separate pan. When the butter is melted add the flour and stir to obtain a thick mixture. Remove the pot from the fire and slowly add the hot milk while stirring quickly. Return the mixture to the heat and simmer over a low flame for about 10 minutes, until the sauce thickens and becomes smooth. If any lumps remain, the sauce may be put through a fine strainer. Let cool a bit.

Beat the egg yolks and cream in a bowl. When the sauce has cooled a little, add the cream and egg yolk mixture to the pot and stir well. Season with salt and nutmeg, add the Parmesan cheese and stir. Pour the white sauce over the eggplant in a thick, even layer and bake in a preheated 200-degree Celsius oven for 40 minutes, until the topping is firmed and lightly seared.

Serve warm, with tomato and cucumber slices seasoned with salt and lemon.

For a vegetarian filling:

In place of the meat, use 250 grams brown lentils that have been soaked in water for an hour, until they have almost doubled in volume. When frying the onion, add a grated carrot and a cup of chopped mushrooms, to soften the texture. Continue according to the above recipe, and simmer the lentils in the tomato paste until soft, but make sure the filling is not too liquidy. You can also add half a cup of bulgur that has previously been soaked in water.