"It's all Greek to me" were practically the words that came out of my mouth when I first saw this dish listed on a restaurant menu. I didn't know what I was getting in to, but ever since that initial sumptuous taste, I have been in love and obsessed with this classic Greek casserole. Moussaka at first may appear to be a wintry meal, but late summer with its abundance of dark purple eggplants or aubergines is truly the perfect opportunity for making this dish. For me the sight of an eggplant around this time of year automatically equals moussaka. And truth be told, I love it so much that I usually end up eating the entire casserole all by myself.
This love, however, doesn't come so easy. The recipe takes real time and preparation, but it's wholeheartedly worth it. Many components can be made ahead, in particular the meat filling. The day before I plan to make this meal, perhaps for a summer dinner party, I prepare the simple ground-meat filling. Late the next morning of the dinner, I'll fry the eggplant slices for the layers. Then about an hour before guests begin to arrive, I'll make the béchamel sauce, start the assembly, and bake. After the casserole has a chance to cool for easier slicing and serving, it's ready to be enjoyed with a chilled glass of Greek white wine.
To choose eggplants for this recipe, look for the medium to large bulb-shaped globe variety. The eggplant should have a deep purple color, be free of blemishes and discolorations, and be firm and heavy for its size. I prefer the longish globe eggplants, because they work perfectly for layering. The more plump ones work well when cut into discs for a recipe like Eggplant Parmesan. Other eggplant varieties include the slender long Japanese kind, which are great grilled or roasted and the small round Thai variety, which are nice in stews and stir-frys.
One tip: Making béchamel can be a trial in lump making. For me, I know it always is. To create a lump-free white sauce, follow the French technique of making a beurre manié, a flour-butter paste. This paste once dropped into hot milk and whisked vigorously creates the silkiest of sauces, free of pesky lumps.
for the eggplant layers:
3 long globe eggplants
coarse sea salt
for the meat filling:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano
coarse sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
for the béchamel sauce:
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
coarse sea salt
freshly ground white pepper
10 ounces Kefalotyri cheese (or pecorino Romano), grated
To make the eggplant layers, cut off ends and cut lengthwise into 1/2-inch thick slices. Liberally salt both sides and let stand in a colander set over the sink for at least 30 minutes. Rinse with water and pat dry.
Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed sauté pan on medium-high. Fry eggplant slices for 3 to 5 minutes per side until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
To make the meat filling, heat the butter and oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beef and cook until brown, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add the wine, tomatoes, and cinnamon. Simmer until liquid has reduced, about 30 minutes. Add the parsley and oregano. Season with salt and pepper.
To make the béchamel, knead the butter and flour into a paste. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk to a boil. Add the butter-flour paste and whisk vigorously until the sauce thickens. Add half the grated cheese and continue to whisk until melted. Add the nutmeg and season with salt and white pepper.
To assemble, layer the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with the eggplant slices, making sure to overlap edges. Spread with half the meat mixture. Add another layer of eggplant slices and spread with the remaining meat mixture. Cover with remaining eggplant slices. Spread with half the béchamel and sprinkle with remaining grated cheese. Bake from 40 to 50 minutes until bubbling around the edges of the pan. Remove and let cool for 30 minutes. Serve squares with remaining béchamel sauce and either homemade or store-bought marinara sauce on the side. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.