When I was in elementary school my best friend was a girl named Athena. Athena came from a big Greek family that included four daughters. At Athena's house, I learned how to swear in Greek ( I can still say shit.…not that it matters.), found out all kinds of unmentionable stuff from her older sisters and was exposed to the insane deliciousness of Greek cuisine. I especially loved hanging out around her house during the holidays. Athena's home would wreak of yummy aromas–homemade spankopita, sweet breads and bakalava. I can still remember the flaky, sweet goodness of her mother's bakalava. I suddenly had a whole world opened to me: meals with funny names like moussaka and gyro. It's why today I have a soft spot for Greek food. Next to Mexican, it is my most favorite cuisine. Luckily, Toronto has a wonderfully vibrant Greek community and I can always find a great little spot to satisfy my craving.
One thing I never would dare to do, until now, is to try my own hand at Greek cooking. I could never do it justice. However, one day, my sister-in-law one filled my in-box with this recipe for a Moussaka Gratin. A chef in the States, I think Amanda just whipped this up one afternoon. I, however, would have to carry the recipe in my purse for at least two weeks before I got around to buying all the ingredients. (That's if I could still read the recipe after it lived in my purse for a few weeks.) Then, I'd get busy, forget, run out of time that week, you know, the regular week foibles and wind up never making it. Finally, on a Saturday, I'd maybe make this meal. As you can gather, I'm no Amanda. But it's worth making the time for this meal. It's not a week day event, however, you'll relish having this baby in the freezer come Wednesday. I guess I'd only have one question? I wonder what Athena would think of this dish?
Amanda's Moussaka Gratin
Serves 8 – 10
5 – 6 med eggplants (about 5”), peeled, & cut into 1” pieces
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
2 large celery stalks, finely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, finely minced
2 lb ground lamb
1 pint cherry tomatoes
3 tablespoons ground cinnamon
2 whole nutmegs
1 cup low sodium stock (beef, chix, or veg)
½ cup flat leaf parsley, fresh, finely chopped
Ground black pepper
3 cups whole milk
2 bay leaves
6 whole peppercorns
1 large garlic clove, whole
1 small onion, cut in half
4 whole cloves
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup all purpose flour
2 large egg yolks
4 oounces pecorino, finely grated (about 3 cups)
2 large egg whites
Heat the oven to 400.
Toss the eggplant w/kosher salt, place in a strainer over a bowl or in the sink and set aside.
In a 14” skillet, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over med heat sauté onion, celery, & garlic until softened. Raise heat to med-high, add lamb, cook til browned. Add tomatoes, cinnamon, salt and freshly ground pepper TT, and stock. Cook until tomatoes are soft (brake them up w/a spoon or spatula), and juices have reduced but mixture is still very moist. Stir in parsley and season with about 1 whole nutmeg finely grated. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
Rinse the eggplant thoroughly and spin or pat dry with paper towels. Heat the remaining olive oil in same skillet over med-high heat. Add eggplant and sauté, allowing to brown, until soft but not mushy (you can add more olive oil if necessary). Stir into meat mixture and season TT with salt and pepper if desired. Spoon the mixture into desired cooking vessel(s) - (large casserole dish or 10 — 12 deep individual ramekins) smoothing out the top, leaving at least 1 – 1 ½ “ at the top for béchamel sauce.
Add the milk, bay leaf, peppercorns, whole garlic clove, small onion cut in half, cloves, and about ½ — 1 whole nutmeg finely grated into a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over med heat. Turn off heat, cover, and let sit for at least 10 minutes.
Melt the butter over med heat in a large saucepan, add flour, stirring constantly until a very slight golden color. Strain in the reserved milk and whisk until thickened and shiny. Whisk the egg yolks in a small bowl with about ½ cup of the sauce. Add to sauce and whisk well. Stir in the cheese. Remove from heat.
Whisk the egg whites well (stiff peaks would be nice but even if you just get it really foamy it will be fine). Fold egg whites into the sauce. Spoon the sauce on top of the eggplant/lamb mixture (as evenly as possible if using individual ramekins) leaving about ¼” from the top.
Put the cooking vessel in a water bath about half way up the and cover w/foil. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 35–40 mins until bubbling and browned. Cool about 10–15 mins before serving.