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Athens in the Oven: Import a bit of Greece to your table with moussaka
By Kelly Green Gardner | Photo by Carmen Troesser
Posted On: 04/01/2010   


I ate lamb for the first time at my aunt and uncle’s farm in Tennessee several years ago. My British aunt is always cooking ethnic food, and because of her, I’ve tried many dishes – like moussaka – for the first time. With each bite of that Greek casserole, I noticed something different – the acidic tanginess of the lamb, the warm earthiness of the cinnamon, the sweet muskiness of the nutmeg.

I’ve wanted to make moussaka at home ever since that spring visit to the farm. During my research into traditional recipes for the dish, I discovered many variations in ingredients and techniques. Some featured a meat sauce made with lamb; others featured beef. Some recipes said to simmer the meat in red wine, some in white. Others listed no wine at all in the ingredients, noting that using wine was not traditional. Some recipes had eggplant as the main vegetable; others added zucchini or potatoes. Some recipes included a béchamel made with eggs; others had no eggs. Some recipes called for Kefalotiri or mizithra cheese; a few called for Parmesan or feta.

So I asked personal chef and caterer Maria Sakellariou, owner of Culinary Odyssey, Personal Chef Service, to set me straight on the traditional moussaka recipe. She explained, “The reason why you have so many variations is that different parts of [Greece] had different ingredients available. As we know, most all of the ethnic-cuisine cooks used whatever was readily available. Later came the ‘creativity’ element, where many modern cooks started to experiment with recipes by adding different ingredients.”

While I’ve always thought the main elements of moussaka are lamb and eggplant, I learned from Sakellariou that “the term moussaka refers to any vegetable casserole. Over the years in ‘tourist language,’ the word moussaka has become synonymous with the meat and eggplant version.” However, since meat is not eaten daily across most of Greece, moussakades (the plural of moussaka) are usually made with vegetables only. Sakellariou went on to explain that “moussaka is mostly made during the months when the fresh vegetables are in abundance.” Meat is added only for special occasions or Sunday meals.

I also learned that, traditionally, there is no wine added to the meat sauce. However, the ingredients that make moussaka distinct are the cinnamon (added to the meat sauce) and nutmeg (added to the cream sauce).

As for the cheese, according to Sakellariou, “mizithra is used in the small villages of northern Greece and on the islands where there are herds of sheep and goat and where the tsopani [shepherd] makes the mizithra.” Parmigiano-Reggiano can be substituted for mizithra or other hard, dry Greek cheeses like Kefalotiri.

Sakellariou’s version of moussaka includes thinly sliced eggplant, zucchini and potatoes layered with a meat sauce. It is a hearty, flavorful dish that was quickly devoured in our house; leftovers didn’t last longer than a day. And I’ve already had a request to make it again soon.

Sakellariou described moussaka best when she recalled a saying she’s always loved: “In the taste quartet of renowned Greek dishes, Greek salad is the violin, phyllo pie is the viola, dolmas is the cello and the depth of the bass sings out in moussaka.”

Moussaka
Culinary Odyssey, Personal Chef Service’s Maria A. Sakellariou
Makes 15

INGREDIENTS

2 medium eggplants
Kosher salt
2 medium zucchini
2 large baking potatoes
3 Tbsp. olive oil, plus more for grilling
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 lbs. ground lamb
1 14-oz. can chopped tomatoes
1 8-oz. can tomato sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley
1 Tbsp. dried Greek oregano
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1½ cups grated mizithra cheese
Cream sauce (Click here to find the recipe.)
½ cup bread crumbs

PREPARATION

• Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
• Peel the eggplants and slice them lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices.
• Sprinkle the eggplant slices with salt and let them stand for about 30 minutes to remove the bitter taste. Rinse them in cold water and pat dry.
• Slice the zucchini lengthwise into ¼-inch-thick slices, then rinse them in cold water and pat dry.
• Peel the potatoes, cut them into discs and place in a bowl of cold water. Pat them dry when ready to cook.
• Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil, coating them well, and place them either on the grill or under the broiler to brown. Once they have browned, set them aside.
• Repeat the process with the zucchini and potatoes.
• In a large skillet, sauté the onion and garlic in 3 tablespoons olive oil until tender, then remove to a bowl.
• Add the ground lamb to the skillet and brown well.
• Drain any fat from the skillet.
• Stir the chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce, sautéed onion and garlic, salt, pepper, parsley, oregano and cinnamon into the meat.
• Simmer the meat mixture, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, then remove from the heat.
• Stir in ½ cup mizithra cheese.
• To assemble the moussaka, place a layer of cooked potatoes in a greased 9-by-13-inch baking pan, followed by a layer of cooked eggplant.
• Spoon the meat mixture on top of the eggplant.
• Place a layer of zucchini on top of the meat, and if you have more eggplant, place a layer on top of the zucchini.
• Sprinkle with half of the remaining cheese.
• Ladle the cream sauce on top of the cheese.
• Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese and the bread crumbs.
• Bake for 50 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
• Cool for at least 15 minutes prior to cutting into squares and serving.

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DATE: 04/06/2010 10:44AM    POSTED BY: katieoc
If you roll your cursor over the word "here" in click here, it should highlight. Click it, and it takes you to the recipe. If that's not working for some reason, you can find the recipe for Cream Sauce here: http://www.saucemagazine.com/recipe/442.
DATE: 04/06/2010 10:34AM    POSTED BY: stlfood
Help. How do I get the Cream Sauce recipe? It says click here, but there is no link????

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