“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
When Mark and I lived in England nearly 20 years ago, a neighbor always made Moussaka when we were invited to dinner. Greece was a popular English holiday destination and Greek food a popular choice for parties.
I don’t know how it was that I ever tried making it myself (maybe I’d made it before I’d ever tasted hers) because hers always had hard bitter bites of eggplant (“aubergine”) in it, with big puddles of orange grease floating on the top. Maybe I’d already eaten it in a Greek restaurant in London, so I knew how delicious it could be. Maybe I just was better able to interpret the recipe in Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, THE cookbook of the day.
Or, maybe she was just in too much of a hurry. It’s a dish that takes time, even interpreted for the British home cook. Mary Platis, the California Greek Girl, told me that her family has a recipe that takes all day to make, and I’m sure it’s quite amazingly delicious. Delia’s is simpler than that, although it has three major steps that require some time and several pans and bowls.
Still, I recently had a taste for it. It’s been years since I’d made it, and I’d had leftovers from the leg of lamb we had at Easter. With moussaka in mind, I’d cut the medium-rare meat into 1/4-inch cubes and wrapped it airtight for the freezer.
The recipe calls for ground (“minced”) lamb or beef, but I figured I could just lightly warm the already-cooked meat before it baked in the seasoning in the oven. I cooked the thinly sliced onions well, almost to golden, before adding the meat just to simmer for a minute.
Instead of cooking the garlic with the onions, I added it to the rest of the seasoning — red wine, tomato paste, cinnamon, fresh parsley, salt and pepper. The fragrance was heavenly: fruity and bright, with an exotic tingle from the cinnamon, the fresh-cut parsley, freshly ground black pepper.
How you handle the eggplant is key to this recipe.
It doesn’t say so in Delia’s recipe, but I peeled the eggplant because I don’t like tough purple strings in my food. I had one large globe eggplant (her recipe calls for 3 medium ones) that I cut into twelve 1/4 to 3/8-inch circular slices.
I sprinkled salt on top of each, then stacked them in a colander, topping the stacks with a plate and my alabaster mortar and pestle as a weight. I let the colander stand in the sink for 30 minutes to drain out excess moisture while I cooked the onions and mixed the seasonings. Then, I wiped them dry with paper towel before frying.
One thing you’ve gotta know about eggplant before frying it: it is unquenchable when it comes to oil. You should probably keep the full bottle out of its sight, but in any case, don’t use more than 2 Tablespoons per each 4-slice batch.
I heated the oil to shimmering, slid in the wiped-off eggplant slices, flipping each immediately so that each side got a little oil. I cooked them until each side had brown markings on it, the eggplant had turned a pale green, and was soft. As a final measure against greasiness, I laid them between paper towels.
Meaty and Cheesy
I made a layer of eggplant in the bottom of a casserole dish (no greasing, please!), then topped that with half the seasoned meat and onions. Another layer of eggplant got topped with another layer of meat and onions.
I cooked up the cheese sauce, whisked in the eggs, and poured it over the meat and eggplant. On a whim, I sprinkled on some smoked paprika. All this goes into the oven for an hour, until the topping is high and puffy and a little browned.
I took it out of the oven and let it cool a little to let the topping set and the bubbling to subside, but the fragrance was enticing. Finally, we had a taste (my mouth waters now as I think of it). It was magic — the eggplant had modestly melted into the mixture, leaving just a savory meat and cheese casserole with a lovely depth of flavor.
The other day, my friend Patsy told me that I could never get her to eat eggplant. I’m not so sure that’s true.
For my interpretation of Delia’s recipe, see Moussaka.