Sliced Eggplant Lays Foundation for Moussaka

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A casserole with flavors of the Middle East and Greece, moussaka is marriage of lamb and eggplant under a rich bechamel sauce.

Early fall may end with roasting peppers, but it begins by roasting eggplant.

I’ve been roasting and freezing eggplant flesh for months now, since my garden started producing more than I could incorporate in the week’s meals. I  peeled and diced an eggplant, sautéed it in about 1/4 cup olive oil, transferred the pieces to a Ziploc bag and laid them away in the freezer.

Although the pieces most certainly will be mushy, that’s the desired texture in several much-loved dishes. Sliced and sautéed eggplant is an essential component for Greek moussaka, a heavenly marriage of lamb and eggplant under a rich bechamel sauce. This one, courtesy of Tribune News Service, is more involved than the recipe I’ve prepared over the years. It also incorporates a layer of potato. But regardless of which nightshades come into play, the sweet spices have won my family’s approval, particularly with dried currants.

MOUSSAKA

Ingredients

1/4 cup dried currants

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, undrained

4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 pound ground lamb

1 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Salt and black pepper, to taste

6 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 medium yellow onions, peeled and finely chopped

1 red bell pepper, stemmed, cored and finely chopped

1 cup red wine

1 1/2 cups canola oil

1 1/2 pound eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

1 large russet potato, about 1 pound, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 1/4 cups milk

1 bay leaf

Freshly ground nutmeg, to taste

1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

3 egg yolks

1 cup grated Parmesan

Directions

Put the currants into a small bowl and cover with boiling water; let soften for 30 minutes. Drain and set aside. Purée the tomatoes in a blender and set aside.

In a 6-quart pot over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the lamb, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, allspice and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring to break up meat, until browned, for about 5 minutes. Transfer lamb to a large strainer set over a bowl and drain; discard any liquid left in pot.

Return pot to heat and add remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, along with the garlic, onions and bell pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, for about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, for 10 to 15 minutes. Add reserved tomatoes, currants and lamb; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, for about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a 12-inch skillet over medium heat, heat the canola oil. Working in batches, add the eggplant slices and fry, turning occasionally, until tender, for about 5 minutes. Transfer slices to paper towels. Working in batches, add the potatoes and cook until tender, for about 5 minutes, and transfer to paper towels.

To make béchamel, melt the butter in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking continuously, until pale and smooth, for about 2 minutes. Whisking continuously, add the milk in a steady stream until incorporated; add the bay leaf and cook, whisking often, until reduced to 2 cups, for about 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and the nutmeg, and discard bay leaf. Let sauce cool for 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg yolks and whisk into sauce until smooth.

Heat oven to 400 F. Place reserved potato slices in bottom of a 3-quart baking dish (or two 1 1/2-quart baking dishes) and season with salt and pepper. Put the eggplant slices on top, season with salt and pepper, then cover with meat sauce. Pour béchamel over top of meat sauce and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle the Parmesan evenly over top and bake in preheated oven until browned and bubbly, for 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 servings.

Recipe by Jim Botsacos of Molyvos restaurant, via Saveur

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