Moussaka is a Greek and Cypriot dish that is very well known around the world; the traditional versions only comprised layers of eggplant and ground lamb or pork, but since tomatoes and potatoes arrived to Europe from Mexico and Peru, respectively, they have become a common part of many recipes. It is always very interesting to see how traditional dishes transform as new ingredients are introduced; Greek families are known for their callithumpian way to enjoy cooking together in the kitchen, and an example (which has become a classic after being portrayed in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, a film from 2002) is a group of women peeling potatoes while wondering if they will need more. At this juncture, ground beef has also taken the place of lamb or pork in many recipes, especially in North America.
One of the secrets to a richly flavoured Moussaka, layer after layer, is to pre-cook the sliced veggies, and most recipes online call for deep- or shallow-frying them; they are also invariably laden with a thick layer of béchamel sauce on top (yikes, loads of calories!)
My mom made the dish in Mexico a few times; she did use béchamel sauce, but she pan-fried the veggies with just a hint of oil, and included sliced zucchini. I really liked that, and always thought it was a Mexican addition (after all, squash is native to Mexico). However, I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that my Cypriot mother in-law uses zucchini, too; she also told me that it is perfectly fine to grill the veggies instead of frying, and that the béchamel sauce on top is absolutely optional (which she usually skips.) It appears that Cypriot Moussaka recipes call for zucchini more often than Greek or American ones. I also like my mother in-law’s unique seasoning, which includes spearmint, basil, and oregano, while cinnamon is a constant for all recipes.
In my previous post, I showed my backyard’s harvest of the day, which had a variety of herbs; as soon as I made inventory and saw that I had fresh basil, spearmint and oregano, it did not take a spruiker to convince me that I had to make a batch of Moussaka. I also had my crop of garlic scapes, so I decided to use a couple of them as aromatics in this batch, but the recipe below lists onion and garlic, which are the regular ingredients, and will generally be more readily available. I used canned crushed tomatoes to save time, but fresh blanched, peeled and crushed tomatoes are also good. My recipe honours my mom’s method of pre-cooking the veggies with very little oil, my mother in-law’s delicious herb selection and absence of béchamel sauce, and finally, the addition of zucchini, from both of them.
My Mexican-Cypriot Moussaka –
Mi mousaka estilo chipriota y mexicano
Ingredients (for six portions)
1 lb (454g) ground beef
½ cup onions; peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic; peeled and minced
28 fl oz. (798 ml) crushed tomatoes (homemade, or canned)
2 tbsp fresh basil; washed, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh spearmint; washed, finely chopped
2 tsp fresh oregano; washed, finely chopped
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 large eggplants; washed, ends removed and sliced
3 zucchini; washed, ends removed, sliced
4 large potatoes; washed, peeled, sliced (keep in water to avoid browning, drain and pat dry right before cooking)
2 tbsp olive oil, plus more, for searing veggies
Warm up two tablespoons of olive oil in a pot over medium heat. Add onions and garlic (I used chopped garlic scapes just this time, to take advantage of my harvest) and sauté for a couple of minutes until translucent. Add meat, breaking it into small pieces and mixing with the aromatics (photo below, left). Continue cooking until the meat is no longer pink, then add basil, spearmint and oregano (photo below, centre). Stir to incorporate, then pour in crushed tomatoes, mixing, and sprinkle cinnamon into the pot (photo below, right):
Season generously with salt and black pepper, or to taste. Bring to boil, then lower heat to a simmer, and continue cooking and stirring for another five minutes. Turn off the heat and reserve.
Preheat oven to 350ºF (∼180ºC). Prepare a 9×13 inch baking dish by spreading a thin layer of meat sauce at the bottom. Set aside.
Warm up a large frying pan over medium heat; add about one teaspoon of olive oil and spread on the whole surface. Cook sliced vegetables in batches, flipping and turning to brown evenly; add oil sparingly, if veggies are sticking. From left to right, eggplant, potatoes and zucchini:
As the veggies are ready, arrange a layer in the prepared baking tray, then add a little meat sauce, and continue alternating layers of veggies and meat, until all the veggies are used up. Finish with the rest of the meat sauce, to cover all the surface:
Cover tray with foil or parchment paper, and bake in the pre-heated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the potatoes are fully cooked, and tender. Remove from the oven, and allow to rest, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes:
Thanks to the pre-cooking step, the layers of veggies were tender but did not fall apart, as seen in the photo below, in cross-section:
Alternating veggies with layers of meat sauce allowed all veggies to get infused with the seasonings from the sauce, and keep them moist, as well. With such a delicious and flavourful profile, my family has never missed the béchamel sauce on top.
This post has been a true fusion and tri-generational effort, because one of my daughters helped with the cooking, and also styled and photographed the plated presentation, topping the Moussaka with fresh spearmint leaves, and adding a contemporary look with a smear of sauce sprinkled with Cypriot black salt flakes, as featured in the photo at the top of the post, and below:
I am sharing my post at Thursday Favourite Things #494, with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.