Thursday, 13 January 2011

Lamb Moussaka memories

I first tasted Moussaka in Greece when I was there on holiday back in '82 or '83. It was light, not greasy and with the very first bite caused an eruption of flavours to burst forth in my mouth. I was hooked. I spent the rest of the two week holiday, on the island of Skiathos, trying Moussaka at every opportunity. Since then, I have had fabulous renditions and dire attempts. I also make it myself, and that's my favourite. I make a vegetarian version with tofu and lentils and that is really delicious. But I adore lamb and when I can get a hold of ground or minced lamb, I will invariably make the recipe I am sharing with you today.

Still, I would love to go back to that tiny Taverna in Athens just down from the Parthenon and eat that particular Moussaka again and all that went along with it. The holiday, the solitude, the bright sunshine and the feeling of walking around in history... I'd just switch out my travelling companion for a certain man with strong arms, loving and gentle hands, a beguiling smile and eyes like a storm on the Aegean Sea... sigh.

Because food is more than just a flavour, it's a memory as well. Mine includes my legs feeling sunburned from the beach and tired from walking up to the Acropolis, the sharp resin taste of a cold Retsina wine and the salad we ate: creamy feta, Kalamata olives, fresh oregano and a red-wine vinaigrette mixed with chunks of cucumbers (hold the tomatoes, thanks) which complimented the rich main dish. The Taverna was cool inside and it was fun to look out and people watch; the tourists and the locals intermingling on the busy pedestrian passage.

The walk up to the Acropolis is worth it, even if it is tremendously tiring, because you are walking through all these little alleys and passageways (like the one to the left) with the backs of the houses actually carved into the rock face behind it: these houses are part of Mount Olympus in a very real sense.

What struck me most about Athens, especially the older bit of the city on the walk up to the Acropolis, were the old ladies dressed in black sitting in their whitewashed doorways with their cats. They don't seem to pay attention to the hundreds of people filing past their homes, invading their personal space, they seemed preoccupied to me, their thoughts elsewhere.

In their minds possibly preparing meals for their menfolk who left to go to war and never returned... as they have sat as such in the same doorways for millennia.

Generations of women who gave up their fathers, their sons and their brothers to a war they didn't understand.

Gave up their husbands, their life companions to some cause and now all that remained were their memories, their dreams and the ubiquitous cats. Sitting in the sunshine, their hands busy with their Rosary beads, their bright eyes seeing a scene I could not. I found that so sad. So incredibly sad.

This particular Moussaka recipe isn't too difficult to prepare, it just needs a lot of preparation so allow at least an hour for that. You put together five parts, similar to my lasagne: fried or grilled egglant slices, a white sauce, a meaty red sauce, fresh breadcrumbs and cheese

The Eggplant part
Wash 3 Medium eggplants, slice 2/3"/4cm thick, salt and let drain for 1/2 hour while you prepare the white sauce and start the red sauce. Then dry eggplant and shake in a bag with flour and a good grind of black pepper. Brown in a bit of hot olive oil. Be careful with the amount of oil, and use only enough to brown a few slices at a time. The eggplant is like a gready sponge and will absorb an amazing amount of oil if you let it, and greasy Moussaka is gross. Drain the eggplant and reserve. Or, you can grill the eggplant without flouring it until it is slightly brown, which is how I tend to do it now. (Or even get frozen, grilled eggplant slices, easiest!)

The White Sauce part
In a saucepan over medium heat mix together:
6 Tbl Butter
6 Tbl flour
Whisk for a couple minutes until well blended, add:
750 ml (3 cups) milk
Gently bring to a boil, stirring, and simmer couple minutes. Whisk a cup or so of this mixture into:
3 eggs, well beaten. Whisk the egg mixture back into the white sauce and bring up to a very gentle simmer, whisking just until thick. Do not boil, or sauce will scramble.
Good grating of nutmeg
dash Tabasco Sauce
Let White Sauce cool. It should be quite thick. Note that the white sauce can be prepared a day ahead of time, covered and refrigerated.

The Red Sauce part
Brown well together in heavy frying pan:
2 Tbl olive oil
500g ground lamb.
Drain grease. Add:
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
Sauté around until the onion is limp. Add:
250ml can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
tsp dried leaf oregano
Tbl chopped parsley
Tbl chopped mint
bit of salt and pepper
Simmer gently until quite thick. The red sauce can be prepared well ahead of time, and keeps well refrigerated or you can freeze it.

Breadcrumbs and Cheese part.
You will also need 250g dry bread crumbs. Make fresh by blitzing in a food processor then spread out on a baking tray and leave in a slow oven, stirring occasionally.
Also 500g grated Mozzarella cheese and 150g or so of grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

To assemble the Moussaka
You need a either good sized casserole with a cover or a lasagne dish you can cover with aluminium foil. Put about 1/3 of the eggplant on the bottom in a solid layer. Trim eggplant to fit. Spread 1/2 of the red sauce on top. Spread 1/3 of white sauce over red. Sprinkle with 1/2 of the cheese, 1/3 of the crumbs. Repeat this set of layers. Then put in a layer of the rest of the eggplant, the rest of the white sauce and cover with the rest of the crumbs. Garnish top with a sprinkle of ground red chile or paprika and a small handful of chopped parsley. Cover, and bake at 350°F/160°C for an hour, uncover and bake until browned on top and bubbly. Serve with a green salad, good bread and a bottle of light red wine. Greek Retsina wine is quite wonderful with this.


Annette said...

This sounds wonderful. I love the food of Greece -- especially when eaten in Greece. Next time I get my hands on ground lamb, I am going to try your recipe. It sounds fabulous!

English Rider said...

Moussaka is always well received by my gang.

Lee said...


Every so often I do individual mousaka - slice and fry half and egg plant and then reassemble it with meat and sauce. Can be presented very nicely on the plate.

la fourchette said...

Oooh - looks/sounds delicious! I have a recipe that is a 'french' version of mousaka with sliced potatoes and ground beef...which put me off until I tried it. Yours is definitely going on the list to prepare. I, too, love Greece - this will be a nice way to reconnect! (I really appreciated your personal description of the place. Nicely done.)

the fly in the web said...

That was a moving description of the elderly ladies...

Can't get lamb here unless prepared to mortgage body parts...

Kitty said...

Annette: I do hope you try it, I am a real fan of spiced meat dishes eaten in parts of Mexico like Picadillo, or something like highly spiced pork braised with dried fruits which were popular during Elizabethan times. Or authentic mincemeat, made with steak, which I really need to Blog about next Christmas...

English Rider: It's well received by my gang, as well. I did this dish the other night, which is what prompted me to post this recipe, and both girls said it was the best thing they'd ever eaten in their entire life, ever. Then Little One piped up with, "Well, actually since the last best thing you ever made, Mummy. The thing with the octopus."

Lee: Now I must thank you for that idea, I love it and I will use that in future. I have the perfect oval ceramic dishes for a perfect-sized portion and I could make it en masse and freeze it for later. I do that with my Lasagne, but why have I never thought to do it with Moussaka? I appreciate the suggestion!

La Fourchette: Oh yes, that layered potato French Moussaka version, when it's done well it's lovely, isn't it? Thank you for the kind comments, I really connected with Greece: the culture, the pace of life and the people I encountered. I really do want to go back, one day, and sail around the islands. It's a dream of mine.

The Fly in the Web: As you know, lamb here is stupid expensive, as well. But I occasionally find it at Metro. I had some lamb mince in the freezer I'd bought on offer, it needed using, so, voilà!
The Greek women touched me, touched my 20-something sense of young womanhood, made me think of what it would be like to be alone, all alone at the end of my life. Probably more than it would have had I not been travelling with someone who made me feel solitary even when sitting right next to me. I decided during that holiday that it would better to be alone than be ignored like that. Then promptly forgot that lesson when I married my first husband. Oh well, we live and learn. Some of us many times over.

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