Moussaka: eggplant, meat sauce and bechamel. Image from Food Network at: http://img.foodnetwork.com/FOOD/2011/02/21/SM0403H_moussaka_s4x3_lg.jpg

My husband and I used to like going to The Fat Greek restaurant with friends, mostly because it was BYOB, but also because the food was reasonably priced and not all bad. They had daily specials, and we would make it a point to go on Fridays just to get a dish of my husband’s favorite, moussaka.

The first time I tried it was on vacation in Australia. I’ve never had Greek food aside from fast food-type gyros, so my husband urged me to try this new dish. Holy cow, this was GOOD! The sauce was rich and savory with a touch of warm spices, and the tender eggplant soaked up all that delicious flavor. But a taste of the creamy, cheesy bechamel that topped it off sealed the deal. That night, I vowed to make my husband moussaka.

And four years later, I finally did!

This slightly modified recipe comes from the editors of Cook’s Illustrated in their fantastic culinary collection, The Best International Recipe: A Home Cook’s Guide to the Best Recipes in the World. Cook’s Illustrated is another favorite magazine from which I learned a lot of my cooking skills. You get to read up on product reviews, cooking tips from readers as well as staff members, and featured recipes include the trials and errors behind their final products. They also feature beautiful paintings and  illustrations of foods on each magazine, it’s like getting a piece of art with every issue! (my dream job is to be an illustrator for their magazine!)

Making moussaka was much easier than I thought. Planning it out in my head, I estimated about 2 hours from start to finish, and most of it is either simmer time or baking time. The only part about this I don’t like is the dish washing time. ;)

I modified the recipe by slicing the eggplant rather than cutting it into chunks. I also used lean ground venison instead of lamb. For my gluten-free friend, I used sorghum instead of flour, and I couldn’t taste any difference in the bechamel.

You’ll have to forgive me for not having taken a photo of the plated entree (with guests over, I just completely forgot!) It will look like the one I posted above from Food Network, but please use the recipe below. I’m sure you will enjoy it!

Layered Eggplant and Lamb Casserole (Moussaka)
from The Best International Recipe: A Home Cook’s Guide to the Best Recipes in the World

When buying eggplant, look for those that are glossy, feelfirm, and are heavy for their size. Do not substitute low-fat or nonfat milk in the sauce.

4 pounds eggplant (about 3-4 medium) sliced into 1/2″ thick pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and ground black pepper
2 pounds ground venison (or any ground meat)
1 medium onion, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 4 teaspoons)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon sugar
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 28-ounce can tomato puree
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup sorghum flour (or all-purpose flour)
2 cups whole milk
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
pinch ground nutmeg

1. Adjust 2 oven racks to the upper- and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 450 degrees. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with aluminum foil and spray with vegetable oil spray. Arrange the sliced eggplant on the baking sheets, brush with olive oil and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Bake until light golden brown, about 15-20 minutes, rotating pans halfway through the roasting time. Set aside to cool. Leave the oven on, reducing the temperature to 400 degrees.

About three medium sized eggplants (4 pounds) will give you this many roasted eggplant slices. Those fresh ones on the side are smaller and equal 3 1/2 pounds.

2. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and cook the venison in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, breaking the meat into smaller pieces with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 5 minutes (omit oil if using lamb.) Strain the ground meat through a fine mesh strainer, reserving the drippings.

Add in the tomato puree, ground venison and wine.

3. Return 2 tablespoons of the reserved drippings, onion, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the pot and cook over medium heat until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, garlic, oregano, sugar and cinnamon and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the drained meat, tomato puree, and wine, increase the heat to high, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low, cover partially, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the juices have evaporated and the sauce has thickened, 25 to 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Slowly add 1/4 cup milk at a time and stir well. It'll be a little lumpy, but keep stirring and it'll smooth itself out.

4. While the lamb simmers, melt the butter in  a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the sorghum or all-purpose flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a simmer and cook, whisking often, until the sauce thickens and no longer tastes of flour, about 5 minutes. Off the heat, whisk in the Parmesan and nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste; cover and set aside.

5. Spread the roasted eggplant evenly into a 13×9 inch baking dish (or 2 8×8 pans.) Spread the lamb filling over the eggplant, then pour the bechamel evenly over the top. (At this point the casserole can be covered and refrigerated for up to 2 days.)

6. Bake the casserole, uncovered, until the top is lightly golden, 25 to 35 minutes. (If refrigerated, cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, then uncover and continue to bake for 15 to 20 minutes). Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

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