Greece is exactly as amazing as you’ve heard. From the white houses with blue shutters to the dusty air around the Parthenon. It’s all amazing. The people of Greece have been perfecting moussaka, greek salad and tzatziki since before Jesus was a baby (exaggeration, but you get the point). They know what they are doing. I think I’ve made a pretty good stab here. I’ll be interested to hear how your adventure turns out.
Greece knows all
Greece was a part of the summer 2006 journey with my UNC friends. Mindy and I tooled around Italy first and then met Steph, Kath, and Julie to venture through the best of Greece. We spent a few cultured days in Athens, then moved onto gluttonous Santorini and tantalizing Mykonos. If you asked about my favorite memory at the time, I would surely have mentioned either black sand beaches or food heavily coated in olive oil and feta. With a little distance, Athens is the experience that I can’t forget. American’s often can’t fathom the kind of history that surrounds Athens. I imagine the Acropolis looking at all of us tourists with a sense of knowing condescension – it has seen it all. There are no surprises, only the same story in a different century. It might sound weird, but I find that comforting. Its easy to feel like we are the only people ever facing whatever challenge is facing us. Truth is – we’re all cycling through some version of the same stories and all we can do it live them as genuinely as possible.
Why Moussaka, Greek salad, and tzatziki
Moussaka was the first meal that I enjoyed along the coast in Santorini in Greece. I had no idea what it was, but my trusty travel guide said I couldn’t miss it, so who was I to argue? The taste of cinnamon, all spice, and cloves create a perfectly unique flavor that will have your mouth watering instantly. Greek salad, however, didn’t immediately jump start my taste buds. At this point, I so strongly disliked uncooked tomatoes, that Kevin and I started a tomato haters club. My first real attempt at exiting the tomato haters club came courtesy of Greek salad. Perhaps its the huge chunks of feta or the lack of squishyness to the tomatoes, but I could eat Greek salad every single day of my life. It’s the perfect combination of fresh, tangy, and savory. Definitely a worthwhile reason to depart the tomato haters club. Tzatziki took a bit longer for me to appreciate also, but I can’t imagine a Greek meal without the creamy, tangy accompaniment of tzatziki.
An Austin Greece experience
As you might remember, this whole culinary journey started over an Italian dinner with Kefren. Kefren came back for my next Mediterranean stop. This was still in the middle of “all that was awful” – as you heard in Thailand. However, I had just spent the weekend celebrating Eric and Sandy’s wedding, so there was a moment of light. The combo of the wedding celebration plus a great evening with Kefren, provided just the right amount of respite. Even when things seem to be their darkest, there are a few moments of light and love. Survival for me meant seeking those moments out and then clinging to them for dear life.
Inspirational recipe and resources
Moussaka tweaks and cautionary tales
- Start with prepping the eggplant in a salt soak. It could easily over power the dish otherwise.
- Follow the bechamel recipe exactly. This is not the place to get creative.
- Don’t overcook the lamb (or whatever meat you select). There is plenty of cooking time built in.
- Know that this takes quite a bit of time. You can make the meat sauce the day ahead to if you like
- Watch the broiling at the end very carefully.
- My version below includes slightly increased all spice, cloves, garlic, and other spices.
Greek recipes TV does a great job of showing the steps, although they bake the eggplant instead of salting and frying the eggplant.
How to make Moussaka healthier
- Use skim milk and olive oil based butter
- Replace the lamb with low fat ground beef or turkey
- Follow the baking instructions for the eggplant instead of the frying them
Nitty-Gritty – Moussaka
- Learning Curve: medium – moussaka aonly
- Pre-work: it’s not required, but you could make the meat sauce and saute the eggplant the night before
- Vegetarian: no, but you could replace the meat with mushrooms
- Healthy: Not particularly (bechamel can be heavy, although I have lightened it up)
- Freezes well: yes
- 2 large eggplants, peeled, sliced into ⅛ inch rounds
- 2 large baking potatoes, peeled
- ⅓ cup olive oil, or as needed
- 2 cups diced yellow onion
- 1¼ lb ground lamb (or substitute beef, turkey, pork, or combination)
- 2 cups chopped plum tomatoes
- 3 tsp minced garlic
- 3 cloves
- Small piece cinnamon stick
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ½ cup water
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- ½ cup dry red wine
- ¼ cup Italian bread crumbs
- 5 tbsp butter
- 5 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 2½ cups milk
- Few grains of nutmeg
- 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- Salt the eggplant and put in a colander over another bowl. Leave for 20 minutes. The eggplant will release water and become less bitter as a result.
- Place potatoes in a pot and add enough water to cover them. Over medium-high heat bring them to a boil and boil lightly for 5 minutes. Cool, cut into ⅛-inch slices, and set aside.
- Heat about 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the eggplant to the hot oil a few slices at a time and sauté until tender and lightly colored, 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a rack to drain while you sauté the remaining eggplant, adding more oil to the skillet as necessary.
- Start the meat sauce, then move to the cheese sauce.
- To prepare a meat sauce: Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet. Add the onion and cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently, until tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Add the ground meat and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until the meat loses its raw appearance, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf, allspice, salt, pepper, and about ½ cup water. Simmer until thick and flavorful, about 30 minutes. Start the cheese sauce here (below). Add the tomato paste and red wine and continue simmering until the wine has developed a sweet aroma, about 10 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick.
- Cheese (bechamel) sauce: Heat the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and stir well. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk, working out any lumps that form. Bring to a full boil, then reduce the heat to low and gently simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and add nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. Whisk the egg yolks in a small boil and add a bit of the hot sauce to the yolks. Blend well, and return the yolk mixture to the rest of the béchamel (this is called tempering the eggs). Stir in the cheese and blend well. Keep warm while preparing the moussaka.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- To assemble the moussaka: Scatter the bread crumbs in a deep, rectangular baking dish. Place a layer of half of the eggplant slices over the bread crumbs. Add the meat sauce and spread it into an even layer. Place an even layer of sliced potatoes over the sauce. Add the remaining eggplant in an even layer over the meat sauce. Pour the cheese sauce over the eggplant. Bake, uncovered, until the cheese sauce is thick and golden brown and the eggplant is very tender, about 45 minutes. Turn the oven on broil and broil for about 5 minutes or until the bechamel is just lightly browned. Be very careful to not overcook here. Let the moussaka rest for about 20 minutes before cutting and serving.