You can of course make Moussaka at pretty much any time of the year. But it is best in September and October. It is during those months that the evenings are cool enough to make such a substantial and warming dish appropriate and at the same time you can still get farm fresh eggplant (and if you're lucky, vine ripened tomatoes) with which to make it. I mentioned in a recent post that the fall tomatoes have been lovely this year, so I did have fresh tomatoes for my recent batch...but please don't let the lack of good, fresh tomatoes keep you from indulging in this dish. It is most often made with good quality canned tomatoes.
Moussaka is not a dish that I would have tolerated when I was growing up. I have already told the story of my abhorrence of eggplant (lamb would have been unthinkable) and how I learned to love it (in Ratatouille) while I was in London for cooking school. It was also in London that I fell in love with Moussaka—although not in a class setting. Rather, it was at the home of a friend.
My parents didn't do much entertaining when I was growing up. The only large "dinner parties" I ever took part in were family affairs centered around the holidays—Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter.... I have wonderful memories of those dinners. But it was at this friend's home in London, around a big pan of Moussaka, that I truly began to appreciate the pleasures of the table. The whole evening was a delight—the company....the conversation...the laughter...and the food. With the exception of the Moussaka, I don't remember any of the particulars of the evening (it has been a long time), I just remember the warm glow of fellowship...and the dawning of the idea that this place—the table—is what good food is all about.
The Moussaka we were served that night was unbelievably good. But it is most probable that the reason I remember it is because to my taste buds it was exotic. Not only was it made with lamb (!), it was spiced with cinnamon and included eggplant (which at that time was still somewhat new to my palate). Unfortunately, I didn't get the recipe (I know now there probably wasn't one, per se—I would imagine my friend learned to make it at her grandmother's elbow), but I retained the taste memory and always hoped I would run into another Moussaka like it someday.
Many years later, at another gathering at the home of a new friend and colleague, I was served a similar, delicious Moussaka. That dinner too has been several years ago, and Nancy is no longer a "new" friend....she is now a very dear friend. I have learned much about cooking and hospitality from her (having enjoyed many wonderful meals in her home) and it was not long after that first dinner at her table that she taught me how to make her version of Moussaka. It is this (mostly unchanged) recipe that I am sharing here. I encourage you to make it—whether you are making it so that you can squirrel it away in the freezer for a cold, dark night in January, or so that you can share it now with your friends. Since it is easily made ahead, it is a perfect party food—practically a one dish meal (although rice and a green salad will round it out nicely). No matter the reason, or the occasion, I love it....it is worth the extra time. And even if I am at a table of just one or two, each time I take that first bite, I am reminded of those meals shared at tables past, surrounded by my friends.
3 c. milk
a quarter of an onion, peeled
1 bay leaf
pinch of nutmeg
1 28-oz can Italian plum tomatoes or 2 lbs. vine ripened tomatoes
3 T. olive oil
1 large onion (about 12 oz.), cut into a small dice
1 1/2 lb. ground lamb
3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 t. cinnamon
1 1/2 t. dried oregano
1/2 t. cayenne
2 slightly rounded T. double concentrated tomato paste
3 to 3 1/4 lbs. eggplant
Olive oil for brushing—about 1/4 cup
4 T. butter
6 T. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. grated Pecorino
|Ingredients for 2/3 of a recipe (for a 7- by 11-inch pan)|
In a medium saucepan, bring the milk, onion, bay leaf and nutmeg to a simmer. Remove from the heat and cover. Let the milk steep for 20 to 30 minutes.
If using canned tomatoes, pulse them in the food processor to get a chunky purée, or pass them through a food mill fitted with the coarse disk. If using fresh, peel and core the tomatoes and place in a bowl. Crush the tomatoes with your hands. (If you prefer, pulse them in the food processor). Set aside.
In a large sauté pan, sweat the onion, along with a pinch of salt, in the olive oil over medium heat until the onions are tender and beginning to caramelize—about 15 to 20 minutes. Add the lamb and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon. Continue to cook until the lamb is fully cooked (no traces of pink remain) and is sizzling a bit in its fat. If the lamb is very fatty, tilt the pan and spoon off some of the excess fat. (It is likely that the lamb will be very fatty. It is important to take the time to do this.) Season the lamb with salt and add the garlic, cinnamon, oregano, and cayenne and cook until fragrant (just a minute or two). Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring to distribute the paste, for another minute or two. Add the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce has thickened—about 30 minutes. Taste and correct the seasoning.
While the sauce simmers, top and tail the eggplants. Slice each eggplant lengthwise into 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick slices. Spread on a baking sheet as many of the eggplant slices as will fit in a single layer and brush both sides with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Broil the eggplant until golden brown; turn and broil the other side in a similar manner. Set aside. Repeat with the remaining eggplant.
When you are ready to build the Moussaka, finish the béchamel. Bring the infused milk back to a simmer and keep hot. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour. Cook stirring/whisking constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow. Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot milk (through a strainer), whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Strain in the remaining milk. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper.
Build the Moussaka: Brush a 13- by 9-inch baking dish with olive oil. Spread one quarter of the meat sauce in the bottom of the pan. Layer one quarter of the eggplant slices over the meat sauce.
Repeat these two layers 3 more times, until all of the sauce and eggplant have been used up. Pour the béchamel over all, jiggling the dish to allow the sauce to penetrate. Scatter the Pecorino over all and place the baking dish on a sheet pan.
Bake in a preheated 350° oven until the Moussaka is bubbling and well browned on the top—about 30 to 40 minutes.
Let the Moussaka sit for 20 to 30 minutes in a warm place before serving to allow it to set up (somewhat like lasagne). Serves 8 to 10.
• The Moussaka can be made and built up through the point of making and adding the béchamel up to a day ahead. Chill the partially built Moussaka. To finish, bring to room temperature, make the béchamel and pour it over as directed in the recipe. Scatter the Pecorino over all and bake.
• When I make this in the fall, I always enjoy some right away. I then chill the rest, cut it into individual portions and freeze in containers of one or two servings. To serve, thaw it in the refrigerator overnight. It may be reheated in the oven (covered) or in the microwave
|Moussaka from the freezer--I took this picture sometime in March or April of this year when I thawed and served the end of the Moussaka that I made last fall. As you can see, it suffered no ill effects during the freezing/thawing process.|