MOUSSAKA: FARMERS’ MARKET BOUNTY

recipe + photography BILLY DOUKAS

Moussaka (pronounced MOO-sah-kah) is a Greek lasagna of sorts and worth the time it takes to make this special dish. It always takes me a while, so I make at least a dozen substantial servings. With my Greek recipe as the foundation, this version borrows from Egypt, Turkey and other culinary traditions for mass appeal. Maine’s farmers’ markets are a great source for ingredients required for a mouthwatering moussaka: eggplant, onion, garlic, potato, parsley, oregano, ground beef (or lamb) and yogurt. Other fresh ingredients—fresh Parmesan cheese, olive oil, milk, butter and flour—are grocery store basics. Together they comprise a flavorful stack of compositional layers. And the process of building the stack is at the heart of a successful and delicious moussaka.

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Helpful Tools
A deeper-than-usual baking dish is a must-have for moussaka; otherwise, this multi-layered concoction, topped with yogurt-béchamel sauce, could easily spill and create an oven mess and a smoky kitchen. I use a 3¼-inch-deep, 14- by 10-inch glazed ceramic baking dish, with a sheet pan underneath as a precaution.

You will also need:
2 (12-inch or larger) cast-iron pans
1 (8-quart) sauce pot and large Dutch oven for the sauce and meat mixtures, respectively
Extra-long metal spoon and tongs
Whisk
Large cutting board

Moussaka prep is a big investment in time and best done in stages:
1. Prepare the meat and refrigerate.
2. Prepare potato, eggplant and cheese, build the compositional layers and refrigerate.
3. Top it with the yogurt-bechamel and off to bake!

I prepare moussaka a day or two ahead and bake just before serving. You can also recruit a cooking partner, grab a drink and simultaneously accomplish these tasks.

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Yield: 12 servings
Prep time: 2 hours
Cooking time: 70 minutes in the oven

Meat Filling
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (preferably use oil that has a harvest date on the bottle)
3 tablespoons minced garlic
2 large yellow or Vidalia onions, chopped medium-coarsely
5 pounds ground beef, 80-20 (a flavorful alternative is ground lamb)
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped coarsely
3 tablespoons fresh Greek oregano, chopped finely
4 tablespoons cinnamon spice
6 tablespoons concentrated tomato paste
2 (14-ounce) cans cherry tomatoes, undrained
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons black pepper

Layers
8 cups extra-virgin olive oil (preferably use oil that has a harvest date on the bottle), divided
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 3/16 inch thick
2 large eggplant, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon black pepper
2 cups flour (white or whole wheat), set in flat wide platter
12 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated coarsely

Yogurt-Bechamel Topping
2 quarts (8 cups) whole milk
1½ cups Greek yogurt
5 ounces or 10 tablespoons roux (see below)
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 teaspoons nutmeg, divided
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated coarsely

Roux
5 ounces salted butter
1¼ cups regular white flour

Meat Filling
Heat oil over medium heat till shimmering in large Dutch oven on the stovetop. Add garlic and sauté till slightly brown. Add onion and continue cooking for 6–7 minutes on medium-low heat, till translucent, before adding ground beef and turning heat up to medium-high. Using a long spoon, break up meat and gradually mix, allowing the bottom layer to brown. Cook on medium heat for another 7–10 minutes, or until the meat is a uniform brown color. Pour off excess liquid (always using 2 hands and 2 mitts) and return to low heat. Repeat this again in 5 minutes. Add parsley, oregano and cinnamon, mixing thoroughly, and combine tomato paste and canned tomatoes. Taste at this point, adding salt and pepper to your preference. Set aside and allow to cool.

Layers
Heat 1 cup oil in each of the 2 cast-iron pans over medium heat, till it shimmers. Set out 2 wide platters with 2 layers of paper towels in each. Place potato slices in heated oil, and sprinkle a small amount of salt and pepper on top. After 3–4 minutes, check for slight browning, flip with tongs when ready, and sprinkle the second side with salt and pepper. When the second side is slightly brown, remove and place on a paper towel dish for draining.

Add 1½ cups olive oil to pans and reheat. Sprinkle a small amount of salt on each side of eggplant slices, which will draw out moisture after a few minutes. Place slices individually in flour platter, covering both sides, shaking off excess, add to heated oil and sprinkle with a small amount of pepper. After 2–3 minutes, check for slight browning, flip with tongs when ready, and sprinkle the second side with pepper. When the second side is slightly brown, remove and place on the paper towel platter for draining. Eggplant will absorb much more of the olive oil than potato. Add olive oil in 1½ cup increments to the cast-iron pans, and allow to reach temperature, each time a batch of the remainder of the eggplant is fried.

Note: A calorie and oil reduction alternative to pan frying is hot air frying, which has better results than a third option of oven-frying.  

Building the Moussaka
Shred Parmesan cheese coarsely and set aside. Place potato slices on the bottom of baking dish, overlapping each other by ½ inch. Sprinkle 3 ounces of cheese on potato before arranging the next layer, which is half of the fried eggplant slices. Again, sprinkle 3 ounces of cheese over eggplant. Spoon meat filling into the baking dish as the third layer, and gently flatten before sprinkling 3 ounces cheese across the top. Add eggplant slices once again, on top of meat, and sprinkle with 3 ounces cheese. Now set the baking dish aside for the finale … drum roll … the all-important topping off with yogurt-bechamel sauce.

Yogurt-Bechamel Sauce
Prepare roux by melting butter and mixing in flour over simmering heat in a small saucepan; set aside.

Combine milk and yogurt in a large sauce pot over low heat. (Yogurt will curdle at approximately 200°F; a target of 180°F is good.) Heat slowly on low-medium, adding cinnamon, salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon of nutmeg. Once heated, never boiling, add roux 1 ounce (or 2 tablespoons) at a time, until all 4 ounces have been added, while constantly whisking. The heat and roux will thicken the milk and yogurt to a creamy consistency, which usually takes 20 minutes.

Pour yogurt-bechamel sauce evenly over the stacked layers in your baking dish. Sprinkle 2 teaspoons of ground nutmeg and 4 ounces of shredded Parmesan cheese over sauce.

Baking
Place moussaka in a 350°F preheated oven, mid-height, with a sheet pan underneath to collect any sauce spillover. After 65 minutes, the top should be just turning a golden brown. Turn oven to broil for another 5 minutes for a crispy top layer. Remove and allow to cool and rest for about a 1 hour, if you can. Using a sharp-edged spatula, cut approximately 3- by 3-inch servings and carefully set in a serving plate. Precutting is not necessary.

Pairings + Sides
In keeping with the Greek theme, Agiorgitiko (aka St. George) by Skouras ($18/750 ml), a cherry-red colored red wine, which has hints of nutmeg, clove and cinnamon, will work very well with moussaka’s baked composition and tomato flavor. A Chianti, Sangiovese or Syrah would also be excellent wine choices.

Given the density of moussaka, a Greek salad, particularly horiatiki, is the perfect accompaniment. It offers chunks of fresh tomato, cucumber, red onion and feta dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and oregano. Be sure to visit your local farmers’ market for ingredients!

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