Face the Moussaka

I don’t like eggplant. Okay, that’s me being a bit too quick to judge. After all, I can count the number of times I’ve tried it on one hand (with a few fingers left over). So, I guess I’ll rephrase: as far as I know, I don’t like eggplant. That doesn’t mean I’m not willing to try it again, though.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in Wisconsin, it’s that frying something and adding cheese usually makes it better. This recipe for Moussaka involves both. Don’t worry, you don’t need a deep-fat-fryer for this – though I just so happen to own one, in case you wanted to submit a recipe that requires one – as we’re dry-frying, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve decided that I’m going to compile all the recipes I attempt into a cookbook of sorts. I found a perfect little book – made in India – that I’m using to log my recipes. I’m having a lot of fun putting it together, if you can’t tell from the photos below…

Can you tell I’m excited?

I wanted to paint a whole wall with chalkboard paint, but Todd reminded me that we live in an apartment and I’d have to paint it all back when we move. Therefore, I got mini chalkboards at Target for $2.50.

Let’s start with some background on Moussaka. First of all, it’s not pronounced like the Spanish word for music. The emphasis is on the last syllable, like moo-sah-KAH. There are quite a few countries with some variation of this eggplant-based dish, mainly in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. I will be making a Greek Moussaka, using ground beef instead of the traditional lamb (this is on a budget, remember?) and topped with a bechamel sauce and parmesan cheese. And to get rid of the red squiggly line that just appeared under “bechamel,” I will add it to my computer’s dictionary. I have a feeling I’ll need to use it a few more times in this post.

Now, I took an inventory of my kitchen and discovered two things: 1. Todd’s stash of breakfast granola bars is running low. 2. I am very ill-equipped for this recipe. I don’t have a single eggplant in my fridge. Imagine that! So, I went to the grocery store to pick up everything except salt and pepper. I could rationalize having to buy eggs by saying I just ran out this morning, but it was more like 2 weeks ago. The grand total – excluding Todd’s granola bars – came to $18.27. Keep in mind, though, that after all this is done, I will still have 10 eggs, half of a tub of yogurt, most of a bag of cheese, and the majority of a bunch of parsley. For something that serves 4 people, I think that’s pretty decent.

Not Pictured: Salt and Pepper. (What is this, a high school yearbook?)

Now, on to the good stuff! Start by slicing the two eggplants. It’s important to keep the slices an even thickness so that they cook at the same rate. This proved to be easier said than done, but I think they turned out alright.

Next, chop your 2 Tbsp. of parsley. I’ve found that bunching herbs up into a ball makes them easier to chop. Just remember to curl your fingers under. I just thought I’d pose so you could admire my sparkly engagement/wedding rings.

I chose get Italian parsley. It was 20 cents more, but I splurge every now and again.

Next, chop the garlic up really fine. I hate peeling and chopping garlic. My tip: cut off the tapered end first. It makes it much easier to peel back the unusable outer layer. You should only need one clove for this. On second thought, 2 cloves might be better. Maybe even 3. Definitely not 4, though.

After chopping the garlic, mentally prepare yourself to chop your two onions. I’m not sure if you can see it, but as I copied the recipe into my little cookbook, I wrote “(Oh no!)” next to chopped onions. I have a notoriously bad history with onions. On the rare occasion that I cook and require chopped onions, Todd always does the chopping – with me a minimum of 20 feet away. If that sounds familiar, take a deep breath and get ready to chop like you’ve never chopped before. So, now that you’re emotionally ready for the task at hand, grab an onion and cut the top and bottom off. Then, slice through the first layer once on the left side and once on the right. This makes it easy to remove the paper-like skin and the least tasty layer in one fell swoop.

Now, I saw this technique on some kind of cooking show, and I thought it would help me with my uncontrollable onion sobbing. I made radial cuts in the onion from the center out without cutting through to the bottom. That is kind of hard to explain, but I was not about to stop and take a picture while the onion juices planned their attack on my corneas. Basically, the onion stays together, most of the juices stay contained, and you’re able to chop your onion into small pieces before it falls apart, releasing its toxic tear gas. Once you’ve made your cuts around the entire onion, get a firm grip on it and turn it on its side. Then slice it as if you were cutting onion rings. The fun part is, because of your first round of cuts, now you’ve got a perfectly chopped onion without all the mess. Repeat this process with the second onion. Stop to run to the sink to wash your hands before you wipe the tears from your eyes – because you’ve finally learned not to wipe your eyes when they are covered in onion juice. Continue chopping. Stop to curse your husband for being at work when you need him to chop onions for you. Continue chopping until your chopping becomes more about revenge than cooking.

Very slowly-browning eggplant.

It’s time to start cooking. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and turn on your burner to medium or medium-high heat. I suggest that you set your plate of eggplant slices and your baking dish somewhere close to your pan. Once your non-stick skillet is sufficiently heated up, put a layer of eggplant slices down to brown. Don’t use any oil, as you are dry-frying. Turn over the slices when you are ready to brown the other side. Apparently this takes a lot more patience than expected, and it goes a lot faster if you get two pans going at the same time. Realize that dry-frying is your new least favorite thing when your smoke detector suddenly detects smoke that doesn’t seem to exist at all. Run to your patio door and set the skillet on the concrete before dashing back to fan your smoke alarm with your husband’s T-shirt. When the smoke alarm decides it’s done being melodramatic, grab your skillet, turn your burn down a few notches, and grab the box fan from your bedroom to prevent any further incidents.

When your eggplant slices are brown on both sides, place them in your baking dish. Try to completely cover the bottom of the dish. When you run out of room in the baking dish, place additional slices on a plate as you brown them. Save these for the next layer.

Add the pound of beef to your skillet and break it up into little pieces. Keep stirring as it browns for 5 minutes, then add the onions and garlic you chopped earlier. Keep stirring as the mixture cooks for another 5 minutes. Add your can of tomatoes and chopped parsley, bring the mixture to a boil, then let it simmer for 20 minutes.

This is where Todd entered, and – in lieu of a hello – said, “It’s smellin’ good in here, baby!”

While the beef mixture simmers, you have the pleasure of making your bechamel sauce. Grab a mixing bowl, a whisk, 2 eggs, your plain yogurt, salt, and pepper. Start by whisking your eggs, then add 1-1/4 cups of yogurt and whisk again. Add salt and pepper. I’ve never understood why recipes tell you to add salt and pepper to taste when you are handling things like eggs and raw beef.

When your 20 minutes of simmering is done, pour the beef mixture over the bottom layer of eggplants.There was a lot of extra liquid at the bottom after baking, which I think could be prevented by draining off a little liquid at this stage. Spread the mixture into an even layer, then create another layer of eggplant slices on top. Next, pour the bechamel sauce over the top and spread it out with a spatula. Then top with 1 Tbsp. of grated parmesan cheese. I ended up using more like 1/4 C. of cheese, and I’d useeven more the next time around, but maybe that’s just how the Dairy State raised me.

Now, your oven should definitely be preheated (and that pizza pan you forgot you were storing in there is now far too hot to take out, so you decide to leave it in there). You’re ready to bake this thing!

Put your masterpiece into the oven and set your timer for 45 minutes.

Into the oven it goes! (Note: I wasn’t lying about the pizza pan.)

Pour yourself a glass of wine – we’ve chosen Franzia “Refreshing White” for this special occasion – and watch an episode of whatever show you’re currently obsessed with on Netflix. You will hear the timer go off just as the credits begin to roll.

Here’s what it looks like now…

Upon further examination, we came to the conclusion that this recipe turned out to be a rather successful first attempt at ethnic cooking. I would make a few tweaks here and there. I’d love to double the amount of bechamel and pour half of it over the beef layer before the second round of eggplant slices, but I don’t know how that would taste. Has anyone made/tried moussaka that had bechamel on both layers? I’d be very interested to know if that would work.

The final product was as tasty as it looks.

For now, I’m going to say that the recipe was a moderate success. I think Todd and I are both going to enjoy touring the world through cooking.

Now, I need more recipes! That’s where you come in. Submit your authentic ethnic recipes on this page here, and think about offering me some feedback in the comments section below.

Until the next taste,