Moussaka is a mainstay in a Greek cook's repertoire and each cook brings their own style to this classic dish. Too often, people don't attempt the dish because it can be tedious to prepare, especially having to fry up all the eggplant slices; kind of messy with inconsistent results.
My mom showed me a few important "shortcuts" that have made it so much easier to prepare the dish. First, instead of frying the vegetables, it's way better to roast them in the oven. In addition, to avoid the sometimes soggy consistency that may occur if the eggplant and zucchini (if you are using both) aren't allowed to "sweat" sufficiently, we use plain breadcrumbs, sparingly but strategically, for always perfect results. (See the recipe for details.) And finally, and this a huge one, when preparing the Bechamel, heat the milk before adding to the roux and, ta-da!, no lumps.
(Moussaka actually tastes even better the next day and keeps in the fridge for up to three days.)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) - approximately 4 - 5 tablespoons
2 slender to medium sized eggplants
1 green zucchini
3 lbs ground lamb, beef or turkey (if using turkey, make sure not to use turkey breast only, it is too lean for this recipe)
1 medium yellow onion, chopped fine
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick (approximately 3 inches long)
6 whole allspice
28 oz. canned, chopped tomatoes
1 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 cup grated graviera or Parmesan
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
ground black pepper to taste
flour for dusting vegetables
1/2 cup of plain breadcrumbs
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 quart whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
Peel and trim the eggplant, trim and scrub the zucchini and cut all vegetables into slices about a third of an inch thick. Sprinkle with salt and set aside for 15-30 minutes to drain. Heat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Brush the parchment paper with extra virgin olive oil.
Rinse the vegetables and pat lightly with towels then dip in flour and place on baking sheets. Drizzle and gently brush with olive oil and place in the top third of your oven. Roasting time varies but, generally, depending on your oven, should take approximately 15 to 20 minutes in total but you may have to flip the veggies about 3/4 of the way through.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add ground lamb or beef (if using turkey, you will want to add some EVOO as it may not be fatty enough to brown properly). Once the meat is browned, drain all the liquid that gathers in the skillet, add the onion, garlic, bay leaves, cinnamon stick, allspice, tomatoes, wine and tomato paste. Simmer uncovered for 30-35 minutes. Sauce should have very little liquid when done.
Fish out the bay leaves, cinnamon stick and allspice then set aside.
Pour 2 tablespoons of EVOO into a deep casserole dish and brush to cover bottom and sides completely. Arrange eggplant slices first, overlapping slightly, (depending on the size of your dish you will have more than one layer), then scatter the zucchini on top.
Sprinkle the vegetables with 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs and then with the 1/2 cup of cheese. It should look something like this:
Gently pour the sauce over the vegetables and smooth with the back of a spoon. (Sorry for the shadow in the next photo... But you get the idea.)
Set the dish aside and prepare the Bechamel. Here's the other shortcut that will make this dish that much easier to prepare. Before you begin the Bechamel, bring the milk to just short of a simmer. Remove from the burner and cover. Then, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan then stir in the flour and cook until the mixture bubbles for 30 seconds or so. Stir constantly so it doesn't stick. Pour the heated milk into the saucepan, all at once and simmer, stirring constantly, for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in salt, nutmeg, and pepper.
The sauce should be quite thick and have a silky texture.
Whisk the eggs in a small bowl. Very slowly add about two cups of the sauce to the eggs to gently temper them. Whisk the egg mixture into the sauce and then pour the Bechamel over the meatsauce. Smooth with the back of a spoon, sprinkle with a little ground nutmeg and remaining 1/4 cup of cheese. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until the sauce is a golden color. It is best to let the dish sit for 30 minutes before cutting.
Also known as the Christmas cookie, Melomakarona are a popular treat any time of the year. Use your favorite honey (we love our local NY Buzz summer and fall variety).
They are also one of the easiest cookies to make. Traditionally, they are formed in a sort of flattened oblong shape but we make them in small bites. You really just need one to be satisfied but, heck, it's the holidays, have a bunch!
Melomakarona (Honey and olive oil cookies)
For the cookies For the syrup
1 cup extra virgin olive oil 1 cup honey
1/2 cup sugar 1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cognac* 1 cup water
1/4 cup orange juice
zest from one orange For topping
1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/4 cup crushed walnuts
3 1/4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Warm oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Combine extra virgin olive oil, sugar, cognac, orange juice, zest and cinnamon. Sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the liquid mixture a cup at a time. Knead dough for a few minutes (by hand or with a dough attachment if using a mixer) until smooth. Check consistency and add more flour if needed. Form dough into oblong shape (about a quarter of cup at a time) and place on baking sheet; press to slightly flatten the cookie. Bake approximately 20-25 minutes.
While cookies bake, combine ingredients for the syrup and bring to a boil on the stovetop; boil for 5 minutes. Remove the foam that will form on top. Remove cookies from oven and place in a rimmed dish, pour hot syrup so that the cookies are half immersed in syrup. Let stand for 10 minutes. Drizzle more syrup over the cookies and immediately sprinkle with crushed walnuts. Enjoy!
* If preferred, 1/4 orange juice can be sustituted for the cognac.
This past Saturday, at the Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow farmers market, we set up our booth in the shade of one of Patriot Park's lovely old trees. From 8:30 until 2:00, the market was a-buzz with folks shopping, strolling along the park's winding paths and enjoying the live music on the lawn. It was a picture-perfect day and I had a wonderful time talking to customers about Oil Ladi, while they sampled the EVOO drizzled on cherry tomatoes or on a slice of baguette. Several customers told me they preferred it straight and so I poured them a shot! Even better!
As the market wound to a close, I purchased a bunch of rainbow carrots and several of the most beautiful summer squash from a nearby vendor. Last night our family enjoyed that squash prepared the way my mom's prepared it for as long as I can remember. It's the simplest recipe and I'll share it with you here: steam the squash either sliced or cubed, as you prefer; combine one part red wine vinegar to three parts EVOO, dried oregano and salt, to taste, in a jar, cover tightly and give it a good shake to emulsify. Pour over your steamed squash and enjoy!
The important thing, as this article states, is to be sure you are cooking with a truly high-quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO). Low acidity (less than 0.8%) is what gives EVOO its delicious taste, healthful benefits and ability to withstand high heat. We've used our EVOO for everything we cook that calls for olive oil and yes, I make french fries with it and they are delicious!