I was first introduced to moussaka, a layered Middle Eastern casserole, at a dinner party in San Francisco in the ’60s. I was young, single, a hippie, and unaccustomed to being invited to sit-down dinners. When I arrived at the Haight Ashbury address, the aromas in the house were simply divine—meaty and exotic, comforting and inviting, warm and mouth-watering.
Over the years, moussaka has become one of my signature dishes. It’s ideal for dinner parties as all the prep can be done well in advance, and it has a serious, delicious wow factor. There are three components: filling, Béchamel sauce, and eggplant. Count on an hour of actual work, with two hours from start to assemblage. Yes, it’s a time-consuming recipe, but, trust me, it’s well worth the effort. Serve this with crusty bread and a salad composed of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, olives, chopped basil, chopped parsley, and 1 teaspoon dried oregano added to an oil and vinegar dressing.
Can be prepared up to a day in advance, covered and refrigerated
1 tablespoon (15 milliliters) olive oil
1½ pounds (680 grams) ground beef or lamb
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) salt
3 teaspoons (15 milliliters) dried oregano
1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) ground pepper
½ teaspoon (2.5 milliliters) ground cinnamon
1 cup (250 milliliters) hearty red wine
one 14-ounce (411-gram) can crushed tomatoes
½ cup (120 milliliters) tomato paste
2 bay leaves
½-1 cup (120-250 milliliters) beef stock or water
Prepare up to 4 hours in advance, covered and refrigerated
½ cup (125 milliliters) butter
½ cup (125 milliliters) all-purpose flour
2½ cups (625 milliliters) whole milk
¼ teaspoon (1.25 milliliters) nutmeg
1 teaspoon (5 milliliters) salt, or more to taste
½ teaspoon (2.5 milliliters) pepper
¾ cup (185 milliliters) grated Parmesan cheese
Eggplant: (make up to 4 hours in advance)
3 large eggplants
3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) coarse salt
3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) olive oil
½ cup (125 milliliters) breadcrumbs
½ cup (125 milliliters) grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add ground beef or lamb and sauté over medium heat until meat begins to lose its red color. Use a wooden spoon to break up the meat as you do not want chunks.
2. Reduce heat to medium and add onions, garlic, salt, oregano, pepper, and cinnamon. Stir and cook for about 6 minutes until onions are turning translucent.
3. Turn heat to high and add wine; stir. Cook until wine is reduced by two-thirds.
4. Turn heat down to medium. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaves, and ½ cup (125 milliliters) beef stock or water. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat and let simmer until filling is very thick, about 1 hour to 1¼ hours. Only add additional stock or water if filling is drying out. Remember to stir every 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat when filling is rich and thick. Taste for seasonings, cover, and let sit. This can be made up to a day in advance. Tightly cover and refrigerate if not using within 4 hours.
1. Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan. Add flour and stir to incorporate. It should be a slurry. Adjust heat so the roux slowly cooks without browning for 5 minutes. Stir from time to time.
2. While the mixture cooks, microwave milk until fairly hot. After the flour has cooked for 5 minutes, whisk in the hot milk, starting with adding about ¾ a cup (185 milliliters), whisking all the time. As soon as it begins to come together, add another ¾ cup (185 milliliters), whisking and scraping the sides and bottom of the pan. Whisk in the remaining milk and switch to a wooden spoon. Add nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and raise the heat slightly, stirring until sauce comes to just the boil. You want a thick sauce but if it seems too thick, add a bit more milk. Taste for salt and pepper.
3. Remove sauce from the heat. Beat the egg in a small bowl. Slowly beat in a tablespoon of sauce at a time until you’ve added about ½ cup (125 milliliters). This tempers the egg so it does not curdle in the sauce. Stir egg mixture back into sauce along with the Parmesan cheese. Press a piece of waxed paper over the sauce and set aside for up to 4 hours.
Needs to be salted up to 1½ hours in advance
1. Trim off the ends of the eggplants. Slice eggplant widthwise into ½-inch (1.27-centimeter) thick pieces. Line a large baking sheet with 3 layers of paper towels. Lay out as many eggplant pieces as will fit and generously salt. Cover with 3 more layers of paper towels and place remaining eggplant slices on top, salt, and cover with more paper towels. Place a heavy object on top to weigh it down. I use heavy lids from saucepans. Let sit for at least ½ hour and up to 1½ hours.
2. Use the paper towels to rub the salt off the eggplant and place back on baking sheet. Pour olive oil in a small bowl and use a basting brush to lightly coat both sides of the eggplant. Place eggplant slices flat on baking sheets (you will need 2 to 3) that have been rubbed with olive oil. Either grill eggplants on the stovetop in a preheated ridged grill pan or preheat oven to 425° F (218° C) and roast in oven. After 10 minutes, flip over, and cook another 10 minutes until browned. Remove and set aside.
Assembly and baking
Can be assembled 4 hours in advance
1. Preheat oven to 350° F (176° C). Lightly oil a ceramic or metal casserole pan that is approximately 9 x 13 inches (23 x 33 centimeters).
2. Line the bottom of the casserole pan with eggplant, using all but 8 slices. Pour all the filling over the eggplant. Position the 8 remaining eggplant slices evenly over the filling.
3. Pour the Béchamel over the top of the filling. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs, followed by Parmesan cheese. Cover with aluminum foil and either set aside on the counter (or in the refrigerator if not using for 3 or more hours) or bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil, turn oven to 400° F (204° C) and bake an additional 15 to 20 minutes until brown and bubbly. Remove from oven and let sit 10 minutes before serving.