Theodora rules the kitchen of the Hotel Nafsika and a small introduction is required before we talk about her Classic Greek Moussaka. She has been in the Nafsika kitchen since it opened in 1978. She lost her mother at the age of nine, she had to take care and cook for her older sister and her family while her sister went out to the fields to work. This along with her strong natural character made her the success she is today. She was a housewife who ended up running the Hotel Nafsika kitchen – serving up to 250 meals a night! Obviously, she was not trained for this nor ever in her wildest dreams had she thought she would be doing this.
Theodora’s Classic Greek Moussaka[/caption]
Her reputation as a cook is revered by her fellow towns people and beyond to the many tourists that grace Agios Stefanos Beach, but just yesterday, John a guest who has been coming to Agios Stefanos Beach for over 20 years, said to me, “I had forgotten what good food tastes like!” after trying one of Theodora’s dishes.
As this is the first of many recipes that will be posted on this blog, I will relate how Theodora discovered it and how it came to be one of Nafsika’s menu items. Like all things, it’s the journey of discovery that is important in life.
Moussaka is a dish that is normally associated with Greece though its variations are part of national Balkan cuisines and has an Arabic name, in the West it is best known in its Greek form and while most people think that all Greek homes make Moussaka the truth is that it is a dish that was mainly made in Athens due to a man called Nikolaos Tselementes. He was a Greek chef of the early 20th century whose book, Greek Cookery, was the first complete cookbook in Greece. He is considered one of the most influential cookery writers of modern Greece. The modern Greek version of moussaka was probably invented by him in the 1920s. Because of this Athens probably makes the best Moussaka and while today in Greece everyone makes Moussaka. When my mother first started to cook hardly anyone made Moussaka outside Athens and the major cities. In other words it was not a peasant meal but a city dish. My mother was taught by a relative who lived most of her life in Athens and thus Theodora learned to make Moussaka.
Moussaka is a casserole made by layering aubergine(eggplant) with a spiced meat filling then topping it off with a creamy Béchamel sauce that is baked to golden perfection. This aubergine(eggplant) version is the traditional rendition taught to Theodora by her great aunt from Athens, however you can also layer in potatoes, courgette(zucchini), or whatever vegetables you prefer. It’s hearty and filling so you won’t need many side dishes. Sometimes Theodora uses lentils instead of mince meat to make a vegetarian Moussaka!
While it can be time consuming to prepare, I think you will find that once complete it is a very worthwhile endeavor.
Prep Time: 2 hours
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
3-4 aubergines(eggplants), about 4 lbs. total
1 lb. potatoes
1 1/2 lbs. mince beef (or lamb)
2 large onions, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup(118 ml) red wine
1/4 cup(59 ml) chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 cup(225 ml) tomato puree (or crushed tomatoes)
2 tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. sugar
Salt, black and white pepper to taste
2 cups(450 ml) plain breadcrumbs
1 cup(225 ml) grated Kefalotyri (like Parmesan) cheese
1 cup(225 ml) salted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup(225 ml) flour
4 cups(900 ml) milk, warmed
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Pinch of ground nutmeg
Prep the Vegetables:
Using a sharp peeler, partially peel the aubergines(eggplants), leaving strips of peel about 1 inch wide around the aubergine. Slice the aubergine in to 1/2 inch slices. Place the aubergine slices in a colander and salt them liberally. Cover them with an inverted plate so that excess moisture can be drawn out. They will need to sit for at least 15-20 minutes, preferably an hour. The salt also helps to remove some of the bitterness of the aubergine.
Peel the potatoes and slice them in 1/4 inch slices. Fry them until soft and golden. Set aside on dry paper towels as to absorb all the excess oil.
Rinse the aubergine slices and dry with paper towels. Fry the aubergine slices in a deep frier or frying pan, turning them over once during cooking.
When aubergine is finished cooking, place them on dry paper towels as well.
Preheat the oven to 350° F /180° C .
Make the Meat Filling:
In a large sauté pan, brown the ground beef (or lamb) until the pink color disappears. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add wine to pan and allow it to simmer and reduce a bit before adding cinnamon, allspice, parsley, tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, (and sugar if tomatoes are not sun ripened). Allow the sauce to simmer uncovered for approximately 15 minutes so that excess liquid can evaporate. It should be a drier, chunkier, tomato sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Make the Béchamel Sauce:
Melt butter over low heat. Using a whisk, add flour to melted butter whisking continuously to make a smooth paste. Allow the flour to cook for a minute but do not allow it to brown.
Add warmed milk to mixture in a steady stream, whisking continuously. Simmer over low heat until it thickens a bit but does not boil.
Remove from heat, and stir in beaten egg yolks and pinch of nutmeg. Return to heat and stir until sauce thickens but not too much.
Assemble the Moussaka:
Lightly grease a large deep baking pan (lasagna pan). Sprinkle the bottom of pan with breadcrumbs. Leaving a 1/4 inch space around the edges of the pan, place a layer of potatoes on the bottom. Top with a layer of aubergine slices.
Add meat sauce on top of aubergine layer and sprinkle with 1/4 of the grated cheese and sprinkle some nutmeg. Top with another layer of aubergine slices and sprinkle once again with 1/4 of the grated cheese. Repeat another layer with the meat sauce, eggplant, grated cheese and the nutmeg. Season each layer with salt and pepper, but not too much salt as the cheese will be slightly salty.
Pour the béchamel sauce over the aubergine and be sure to allow sauce to fill the sides and corners of the pan. Smooth the béchamel on top with a spatula and sprinkle with remaining grated cheese. Bake in a 350° F /180° C oven for 45 minutes or until béchamel sauce is a nice golden brown color. Allow to cool for 15 – 20 minutes before slicing and serving.
You can make this dish ahead up until the béchamel sauce and refrigerate. Make the béchamel sauce right before you intend to bake it.
Serve with Greek salad and/or bread… and enjoy!