Moussaka (Greek aubergine and potato bake)

Moussaka is one of Pete’s most favourite dishes. When we went to Crete last year, practically every time we went out for dinner, whether at an upscale restaurant or a village cafe, he would order moussaka. (And I would just as obsessively order dolmades, not just because I love them but also because they were vegetarian and there were not enough vegetarian options barring salads or pizza. But vegetarian problems are not relevant to this blog, really.)

The moussakas (and dolmades too, come to think of it) weren’t always what he had hoped for, but when he came across one that hit the spot, his delight was boundless. And, of course, that particular cafe was the one we went back to thereafter, because as he kept saying “I know it’s good here, so why go anywhere else where it might not be as good?” He never did answer my question which was “What if it’s BETTER?”. Or rather, he said “What if it’s NOT?” Well, fair enough, because the dolmades at that cafe were pretty good, so I didn’t mind not going anywhere else. 
Moussaka
Anyway, moussaka’s been on my “must try one day” list – just to make, not to eat, because I am a rabid anti-auberginarian and I don’t care who knows it! It’s a good thing that discrimination against aubergines is not a crime because I’d be jailed before you could say “aubergine”. or “eggplant”. Or “brinjal”. Or “kathirikkai”. Or “baingan”. Or in any of the other languages in which aubergines exist.

So, as I was saying, this weekend I decided would be my time to make moussaka. I thought it would be a painfully protracted process (ha, try saying that three times when you’re drunk!), but it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected – mainly, I suppose, because I scaled down the original recipe to make two generous (or three medium) portions. That meant that the aubergines and potatoes didn’t take too long to fry. However, I guess if you have a book in hand for this part of the cooking process, you won’t really notice the time it takes. 

Recipe for: Moussaka (Greek aubergine and potato bake)
Moussaka 1

Ingredients:

1 large aubergine
3 tbsp olive oil + 3 tbsp sunflower or other neutral oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
250gm reduced fat (12%) minced pork or beef
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp dried oregano
60 ml red cooking wine
450gm passata (thick sieved tomatoes)
350gm medium size red potatoes, peeled and sliced lengthways into 5mm thick slices
Salt and pepper to taste

    For the bechamel sauce

50gm butter
40gm plain all-purpose flour
1/2 litre warm milk
1/4 tsp nutmeg powder
salt and pepper to taste

Method:

1. Trim the green stalk of the aubergine and slice lengthways into 5mm-thick slices. Sprinkle each slice with salt and place in a bowl for about 30 minutes to draw out any bitter juices. When you are ready to use the aubergines, rinse them in cold water and pat dry with paper towels.

2. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a non-stick saucepan. Saute the chopped onion until soft and lightly coloured. Add the chopped parsley and garlic and cook for another minute, then add the beef or pork mince. Cook over medium-high heat, breaking up the mince with a wooden spoon, for 3-4 minutes. Now stir in the cinnamon powder and oregano, and add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Continue stirring until the mince is no longer pink, then add in the red wine; scrape the bottom of the pan with your spoon to loosen any stuck bits while stirring. When most of the wine has evaporated, add in the passata. Let the mince simmer on medium-low heat for about 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.

4. In the meantime, heat the remaining 4 tbsp oil in a large non-stick frying pan. Pat the sliced potatoes dry with a paper towel and fry them over medium heat until golden on both sides. Drain on kitchen paper and sprinkle with a little salt.

5. Now fry the aubergines in batches, in the same pan and oil as the potatoes. The slices should be golden on both sides and soft almost to the point of collapse when they’re done. Again, drain on a plate lined with paper towels.

6. To assemble the moussaka, place half the aubergine slices in a suitably sized glass or ceramic oven-safe pan, overlapping the slices if required, half the potato slices. Now spread half the mince over the potatoes. Repeat the layers again. The moussaka can be refrigerated at this point for cooking later.

7. Make the bechamel sauce just before baking the moussaka. To do this, melt the butter in a saucepan until it is foaming. Whisk in the flour with a wooden spoon and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously, until the mixture takes on a pale gold colour and smells lovely. Now whisk in the warm milk little by little to make a smooth sauce. Once it comes to a slow boil, add the nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste and cook for 5 minutes longer on medium heat, stirring constantly. The sauce should be very thick and smooth. Taste for seasoning, then spread the sauce over the mince.

8. Place the moussaka on a baking sheet in a preheated 180C/350F) oven; bake for about 30 minutes until the top is golden brown and the mince is bubbling. Let it rest for 5-10 minutes, then serve. Can be had cold, too.

Verdict: A double thumbs-up. Pete said it was the best moussaka he had ever tasted.

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