When my wife and I were in college, one of our favorite places to eat was Grendel's Den in Harvard Square. Two romantic dinners at this cozy student-friendly restaurant stand out in my memory. The first was when we shared their "Cheese Fondue for Two." The other was the dinner where I was first introduced to moussaka. I'm sure that it was winter, because I remember how comforting the warm layers of spiced lamb, eggplant, tomatoes and bechamel sauce were. Ever since then, this has been one of my favorite dishes.
According to my Oxford Companion to Food there are many variations of moussaka, which gets its name from the Arabic word for "moistened," a reference to the tomato juices that permeate this dish. This recipe* is a version of the Greek interpretation of moussaka.
The recipe starts with sautéing onions, garlic and ground lamb. I used ground turkey because, despite all of my efforts, my wife won't eat lamb. Next I added cinnamon, allspice, dried mint and chopped canned plum tomatoes with some juice reserved from the canned tomatoes. For this step, I strained the canned tomatoes in a colander suspended over a bowl to catch the juices. I discarded the pulp leftover in the colander and used just the tomato juice for the recipe. In retrospect, I should have put the pulp back in with the juice because that would have given the filling some more substance. My filling, which was just a bit more watery that I would have liked.
While the turkey and tomato mixture was simmering, I broiled some eggplant slices that I had brushed with some olive oil. Once the eggplant slices were browned and tender, I assembled the moussaka by layering half of the eggplant slices, spreading the turkey and tomato mixture, and topping it with the rest of the eggplant.
Then I made the topping, which is a bechamel sauce with a twist. First, I made a roux of butter and flour, and then I whisked in some milk and brought it to a boil. Then I melted some crumbled feta cheese into the sauce which gave it a nice, and unexpected salty, tangy richness. Finally, I whisked in an egg and a yolk beaten together. I poured this over the casserole and topped it with some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I baked the moussaka until it was golden and bubbling. After it rested for a few minutes, it was ready to eat. I really enjoyed this dish. It tasted and smelled great. The cinnamon, allspice and mint gave this moussaka a great, traditional Greek flavor. The eggplant was tender and delicious, and the feta-spiked bechamel was awesome! The turkey was fine, but lamb would have been better.
And the leftovers were just as good out of the microwave.
Date Cooked: November 23, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Medium
*This recipe is not on epicurious.com.