Today, er tonight actually, was my first attempt at Greek food and I now fully understand why this culture is so enthralled with food and feeding everyone: it takes forever to prepare! I'm sure there are quicker recipes, and it probably would have helped if I had decided to use only one recipe, but between preparation and actual cooking time, this is not your after-work throw-together dinner. It is, however, a wonderful after-work destressing-in-the-kitchen session. As I mentioned, I did not actually use only one recipe and I'm not sure if I even completely followed equal parts of the two that I selected. I was looking for a solid recipe to follow to make Mousaka, a beef and eggplant casserole that I've tried once from the little Ma and Pa Italian/Greek shop up the street from my apartment. When it came time to select the recipe, however, I couldn't find one clear enough to follow. One recipe on http://www.greekcuisine.com/ listed out the ingredients very well but never clarified exactly how long or at what temperature to cook everything. The other recipe, from http://www.greek-recipe.com/ explained the process quite well but the ingredient list was slightly different, including the omission of potatoes (which was included in the Ma and Pa version and is very, very tasty). The Greek-recipe site noted that the inclusion of potatoes is a Macedonian version but did not clarify where exactly the potatoes went. I suppose the improvising between two recipes makes this a noblecita original! Or, considering the origin, a "noblakis" original.
2 large (or about 1 1/2 lbs) eggplants
1 1/2 lbs potatoes
1 1/2 lbs ground beef
1 medium to large onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tomatoes, diced
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp parsley
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
4 tbsp butter
6 tbsp flour
2 cups milk
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
1 tsp salt, additional to taste
Dash of nutmeg
Lots of olive oil
Slice potatoes and eggplant into 1/4" to 1/3" rounds. Submerge eggplant in salted water for approximately 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, remove, rinse, and pat dry.
Fry potato and eggplant slices, a few at a time, until golden brown on both sides. Remove from pan and place on paper towels to remove excess oil.
Preheat oven to 350* F. Lightly coat a 13x9 casserole dish with cooking spray, or a deep 8x9 dish for thicker results.
For meat mixture: In a separate large skillet, heat approximately 2-3 tbsp olive oil and saute onion and garlic until tender. Add ground beef and cook until almost completely browned. Add tomatoes, oregano, parsley, and salt and pepper, stir to combine and simmer for approximately 20 minutes. Add Parmesan and stir to combine.
For bechamel sauce: In a medium sauce pan, melt butter on low heat. Add flour, 1 tsp salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and stir until well-combined. Remove from heat and gradually whisk in milk. Return to heat and cook, stirring constantly, until thick and smooth. Remove from heat and add eggs. Whisk to combine. Add Pecorino Romano and stir again.
Assemble dish by laying one layer of potato slices in the bottom of the casserole dish. Top with one layer of eggplant. Add approximately a third to half of the meat mixture (depending on how thick your mousaka will be). Repeat layers. Top with bechamel sauce. Bake for approximately 1 hour or until sauce has formed a golden crust. Let stand 5 minutes; dish should be dry enough to keep the layers intact when serving.
This recipe is the definition of approximation! I tossed spices in to the meat mixture until it looked good. The necessity here is to taste once the meat has browned. Let it simmer, then taste and decide if you need to season up or down. Most recipes I saw called for Kefalotiri cheese, but I couldn't find that at my grocery store. When I researched what kind of cheese it is, I read that it's supposedly a hard, aged cheese that can be substituted for Pecorino Romano, or some recipes swapped it for Parmesan. I had both so I used them both (I love cheese, why not throw it in?!). Probably the one suggestion I would make to for this recipe is to slice the eggplant a little thicker and try dehydrating a little more. I think the slices I used broke down a little too far in the frying process and then even more while baking. I'll have to try this theory out next time, but I have to admit I still like the results I got the first time around.
Sadly enough, my first attempt does not plate very well. The casserole is dry enough so that the layers do stay intact when I cut into it but there's something about the sheen of eggplant mixed in that a cut-away view just is not appetizing. Still, I'm back to that savory comfort-food feeling; the subtle salty of the bechamel sauce combined with the mild warmth of the spices in the ground beef, the starch of the potatoes and the organic silkiness of the eggplant, they pull together for a very satisfying meal... I know "organic silkiness" is not a phrase you hear every day. Follow this recipe and you'll know what I mean.