Athens in the Oven: Import a bit of Greece to your table with moussaka

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.”