(* and a Vegetarian Twist)
Yes, I thought it was the quintessential Greek dish too. Actually, it is not. To quote a Greek website my Greco/Egyptian colleague searched, “The world thinks its our dish, so we claim it as ours!”
This week’s story started last midweek when my very much better half bought a good quantity of aubergines and for the Thursday shop that I do (and write up on Wednesday evening, planning the weekend dish) asked me to get some mince beef as we did not have enough. My thoughts suddenly turned to moussaka, a dish I had not cooked in quite some time. Instinctively I turned to Felicity Cloake’s article of 2012 to see her versions and what the world (click [Here] to view) including the Greek readership of the Grauniad made of the dish and to see how similar or different my previous attempts and sampling had been. That was in addition to the ‘Beginning of the Weekend’ (good natured tussle) of who was going to cook what on the weekend. It’s a ritual. It’s a Rite of Passage. It means the weekend is dawning and who does what in the kitchen and when. As an aside, I do believe many ‘architects’ do not cook, otherwise they would construct kitchens quite differently and even more convenient for more than one person to operate at any given time. Any architects out there please take note.
So; the divine Fel quoted Alan Davidson of the Oxford Companion to Food and quoted the etymology to be an Arabic/Turkish (Ottoman script) conflation meaning ‘moistened’ from tomato juices. Wiki on the other hand made a different Arabic interpretation of ‘chilled’ and goes on to say that the Merriam-Webster also says that the first known use of word "moussaka" in English dates from 1862 in a footnote. In fact, checking my much better half, (though there might well be some dialectical differences between classical Arabic and ‘Egyptian’ that contains many Turkish words and pronunciations), that fits closer to the truth as my mother-in-law most of the time ate such dishes (i.e. meat and Bêchamel combinations) cold from the fridge and was surprised my wife heated them for me. The other curious thing, looking at the date and the historical context along with my colleague’s Greek website sources is that the Bêchamel originated from France. In the 19th century there were certainly some interesting political ties between Egypt and Britain and France as with some significant players in the region including Muhammad Ali Pasha who was born in Kavala, close to Thessaloniki in Greece and Muhammad Abduh, so it is a work in progress to uncover the origins of the dish, but a fascinating detective trail with characters that maybe unwittingly had a hand in the origin of the dish. The other curiosity is that what the Egyptians call moussaka is more akin to an Italian lasagne, though with filo pastry, rather than pasta as a layering material. All the elements of a detective novel without the crime!
750 g. Minced Beef (75% lean)
2-3 Large potatoes
1 Stick of celery
Fresh Parsley or Coriander
Worcestershire Sauce (Lee & Perrins – the original)
Cinnamon or Seven Spices (Syrian/Lebanese spice blend)
For the Bêchamel Sauce
Cut the potatoes and aubergine in fine slices and place in (preferably 2) oiled baking trays, splash some oil on the top surface, season and bake uncovered in an oven at 300 degrees for about 40 minutes or until the potatoes are golden.
While the potato and aubergines are baking (I find it cleaner than frying, though that is an option) finely cut the trinity of onion, celery and carrot (mirepoix or soffritto) and fry gently until softened, one could also add an anchovy to the mix. Once our base is softened, add the minced beef. Felicity Cloake uses lamb in her ‘Perfect’ recipe, but while as discussed above, the dish is not originally Greek, using minced lamb in this dish is virtually unknown. After giving everything a good stir over high heat – I prefer to start high and fast and then let things bubble away slowly, add all the seasonings and condiments, except for the fresh parsley that goes in last of all, just before layering the baking dish with the mince. Turn down the heat and leave to cook for between 40 minutes and an hour. Check the liquid content of the meat; we do not want it either too dry or too sloppy. If some liquid is needed, I add a little passata to the meat for richness, hence the inclusion of tomato purée, alternatively one can use plain water.
While the meat is cooking away and by this time the potato and aubergine should be ready, prepare the baking dish one is going to use, and assemble the elements ready to make the Bêchamel, so everything is easy at hand as we want a rich sauce with some body, but neither thin as water nor wallpaper paste. Whisk two eggs and grate nutmeg into the egg, gently whisking again with a little seasoning. Set aside.
Once the meat is ready, layer the bottom of the baking dish with the potato. I find it gives a stability to the final assembly, plus they add a nice creamy element that contrasts nicely with the richness of the meat. Depending on the dimensions of your dish/tray and the quantity of aubergine and feta you have, spoon in your meat and layer the dish as you please. I make sure I have enough aubergine for a solid layer on top to act as a good base for the Bêchamel to sit on.
The topping. In a deep frying pan/smallish saucepan, melt some butter over a medium heat and add flour, when we have a paste, add milk to water it down and keep stirring. Even maybe lowering the heat. We do not want the milk to boil. The sauce is not particularly difficult to make, but while the meat can be safely left to cook on its own once the ingredients are in, Bêchamel needs gentle attention as we build up the quantity and thickness of the sauce. By now, having filled the baking dish with everything else, you know what space you have left with your dish for the sauce. And as the last thing is adding the eggs, we do not want an omelette right now. While stirring one can feel a slight resistance in the stir as the thickening happens. Add some grated cheese, not very much – this is not mac and cheese, but enough for some solidity and flavour. Keep stirring gently. Add in some cream. Keep stirring. Once we have a sauce that has body, but is a sauce rather than glue, add in the eggs and incorporate into the mixture. Take off the heat and add the final layer. Dust the top with breadcrumbs and bake in a heated oven for about 45 minutes. The topping should be golden. The breadcrumbs are not ‘de rigueur’, but I believe they add something to the party as the crunch of the breadcrumbs contrasts nicely with the other softer ingredients.
The sauce sounds and feels like a long operation. In fact, it just seems so because of the concentration, but probably takes about ten minutes, rather similar to scrambling eggs to a silk, rather than lumpy finish. The other thing worthy of note is that one can afford to be generous with the nutmeg and seasoning of the egg as the milk, cream and flour, while quite nice in their own way can be bland and do absorb the seasoning.
*The Vegetarian Twist
For a vegetarian version, in place of the meat, I would suggest a medley of beans mixed with chopped Portobello mushrooms as the filling. While I am personally happy with the above omnivore and ‘typical’ version, the dish (as with many) seems to have so very many variations stretching from the Balkans to Egypt, using many vegetables besides aubergine, that no ‘pure’ and truly ‘authentic’ version exists. The essence seems more to lie in the layered nature of the dish with Bêchamel as a topping.