May it Please the Palate : "No it's not called "moose-caca"

In the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," when Toula was a little girl, she sat alone in the school cafeteria, frizzy haired, big nosed, and unpopular. The blonde girls at the next table asked her what she was eating, and Toula quietly said "moussaka." The popular girls laughed cruelly, saying "Ewwww, ''moose caca!''"

Too bad the "Heathers" at the next lunch table didn't realize how awesome moussaka really is. At its best, it is a sublime combination of layered tastes: sautéed eggplant, seasoned lamb, spicy tomato sauce, melted cheese, and topped with a fluffy béchamel sauce.

At its worst, it's like swallowing a construction block.

Hopefully we're going to give you something today more closely approximating the former. I'm combining recipes from famous Greek chefs Julia Child and Frances Moore Lappe, of "Diet for a Small Planet" fame, and adding a touch or two of my own. You will be left with a version that can easily substitute cooked brown rice, for an equally delicious vegetarian version.

This has a long list of ingredients, but it is really no more complicated than lasagna.

MOUSSAKA

Equipment:

* 9x13x2 baking dish, oiled on bottom and to top of sides

* oiled baking sheet

* colander or paper towels (for draining eggplant)

* pastry or basting brush

* deep saute pan

* 2 sauce pans

* cheese grater or food processor

Ingredients:

* 2-3 "firm, shiny" medium sized eggplants (can't you just picture Julia trembling a little bit when she says "firm" and "shiny?")

* tablespoon dried thyme or oregano

* 1 1/2 cup minced onions

* 2 TBS olive oil

* 2 cloves minced garlic

* 3 cups chopped cooked lamb, combination beef and lamb, or for vegetarian version, 1 cup uncooked brown rice cooked to package directions

* 2 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes (I use San Marzano), crushed or diced

* 3/4 cup chopped Kalamata olives (optional)

* 3/4 cup red wine

* 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

* 1/8 TSP ground allspice

* 1/8 TSP ground cinnamon

* pinch of nutmeg

* salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

* 3 TBS butter

* 4 TBS flour

* 2 cups hot milk (at least 2% or whole)

* 1 cup grated cheese, such as Swiss or Greek kasseri, divided in half

* 1/2 cup ricotta and/or sheep's milk feta (I like Trader Joe Greek feta in brine)

* pinch of nutmeg

* salt and pepper to taste

* 1 egg

* 1/4 cup grated Parmesan

* 1/4 cup bread crumbs, stale Greek or Italian bread, or Panko crumbs, sautéed quickly with butter (optional)

Directions:

1. Cut the "firm, shiny" eggplants into 3/8" thick rounds, sprinkle with salt, and drain in a colander or on paper towels for 20 minutes.

2. Brush the eggplant slices with oil and sprinkle with dried thyme or oregano. Bake 20 minutes in a 400° oven and then brown briefly on top under the broiler.

3. Gently heat the milk in one sauce pan.

4. If using meat, brown it in the sauté pan and drain the fat.

5. In the same pan, brown onions in oil; after a few minutes add garlic.

6. Add cooked meat and sauté, stirring for several minutes. If using rice, add and stir; no need to sauté.

7. Add tomatoes, olives (if using), wine, parsley, spices, salt and pepper.

8. Cook, stirring frequently for half an hour, until mixture holds its shape in a spoon. Carefully correct seasoning.

9. Line baking dish with layer of eggplant slices, spoon on the meat or rice mixture. If you have enough of both, put half the topping on the eggplant, then a second layer of eggplant, and the rest of the meat or rice topping.

10. Make the béchamel sauce. In the second sauce pan, cook together the butter and flour, and blend in the heated milk. Simmer for three minutes.

11. Blend in the ricotta and/or Feta cheese and half the Swiss or kasseri. Season with salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg.

12. Remove from heat and whip in one egg. Whip it good.

13. Spoon the sauce over the top of the eggplant/topping mixture in the baking pan, and shake the pan to allow some of the sauce to sink down in.

14. Top with the remaining 1/2 cup Swiss or kasseri cheese, the parmesan, and if using, bread crumbs.

15. Bake 45 minutes on the middle rack of a preheated 350° oven until bubbling hot, the top nicely browned. Let cool. Greeks eat this warm or tepid, but not too hot; it is also good cold.

Other variations include a bottom layer of half-cooked potatoes - my favorite food in the world - but here it makes things a tad too heavy. The bread crumbs add texture, but also make things more hefty. Use them if you also like your mac 'n' cheese with bread crumbs.

Also, for the vegetarian version, for additional flavor you can add cooked lentils and very finely diced carrots to the rice, sauté some mushrooms with the onions, and the chopped olives.

"Moose caca" indeed. Those girls at the next lunch table should only have been so lucky. As Toula's father Gus concluded in the movie, "There are two kinds of people - Greeks, and everyone else who wish they was Greek."

Published: Mon, Sep 19, 2011

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