Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Middlesex, Moussaka, and Missing Greek Fest

About a month or so ago, as my husband and I were estate sale-ing, I remembered that it was the weekend of the yearly Greek Fest that takes place in the area.  We've gone the past few years.  It was where (during my period as a peroxide blonde) a Greek vendor told me I looked like "Marilyn Mon-noe" and offered to get me a fan to stand over.  It was where we stood in a long line in a constant drizzle of rain, just to get a giant plate of delicious food.  It was where I wanted to go.  Right then.  I could almost taste the thick sauce, the greasy meat, the phyllo dough.

Alas.  My husband is now a vegetarian, which seriously limits most food options (with the highly notable exception of baklava).  So he took me to a nearby Greek restaurant instead, and I had a gyro.  While delicious, it wasn't quite the same.

Thank God for reading.  One of my latest reads was Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.  (Note: I feel like I'm one of the few people out there who has never read or seen The Virgin Suidcides, so Middlesex is my first encounter with Eugenides.)  For those of you who haven't read it, it tells the coming of age (and the changing of gender) of a Greek hermaphrodite.  It was, truly, a delightful book.  Eugenides writes with heart, sympathy, and honesty.  I adored the narration, the various and unique lives of the characters, and, of course, the food.  Because, of course, there is food.

My favorite food passage came early on, after Cal's (the narrator's) grandparents have come over to America.  Cal's grandfather works on an assembly line (another amazing passage), while his grandmother does her own work at home:

"Desdemona stayed home and cooked.  Without silkworms to tend or mulberry trees to pick, my grandmother filled her time with food.  While Lefty ground bearings nonstop, Desdemona built pastitsio, moussaka and galacto-boureko.  She coated the kitchen table with flour and, using a bleached broomstick, rolled out paper-thin sheets of dough.  The sheets came off her assembly line, one after another.  They filled the kitchen.  They covered the living room, where she'd laid bedsheets over the furniture.  Desdemona went up and down the line, adding walnuts, butter, honey, spinach, cheese, adding more layers of dough, then more butter, before forging the assembled concoctions in the oven."

I think my mouth may have been watering. I wanted, no, needed to make something.  My month-old desire for Greek Fest flared up, with overdue vengeance.  And so, before I even finished the book, I went out and bought some eggplant.  I was making moussaka.

Let me just say... this was delicious.  I also made a vegetarian version for Alec, which was almost equally as good.  It was warm, creamy, and tasted of everything I loved about Greek Fest.  All without waiting in line in the rain or having a Greek vendor attempt to get me to stand over a fan.

Note: If you'd like to see what I now also think of every time I think of moussaka, watch this SNL video:  The Love-ahs.

(makes approx. 4-6 servings: double recipe for a 9x13 pan)
adapted from About.com

2 eggplants
1/2 lb potatoes
1 lb ground beef (or lamb)
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, diced
1/4 c. red wine
2 tbs chopped parsley
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground allspice
1/2 c. crushed tomatoes
1 tbs tomato paste
1/2 tsp sugar
1 c. breadcrumbs
4 egg whites, lightly beaten
1 c. Parmesan cheese, grated

1 stick salted butter
1/2 c. flour
2 c. warm milk
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
Pinch ground nutmeg

Partially peel the eggplant, leaving strips of skin.  Slice eggplant into 1/2 slices.  Pile the slices in a colander in the sink, salting the eggplant liberally.  Cover with an inverted plate and place a heavy can (or two) on top to weight it down.  This is to draw some of the excess moisture out of the eggplant, with the added benefit of cutting down on the bitterness of the eggplant.  Let this sit for at least 15 minutes.  Preferably an hour.

Peel the potatoes and parboil them.  Parboiling: cooking until just done.  You don't want them overly soft, but there should not still be a crunch to them.  This should take about 20 minutes of boiling in a pot of water. Drain, cool, and slice them into 1/4" slices.  Set aside for later.

Preheat the oven to 400F.

Line a baking sheet with foil and lightly grease with olive oil or cooking spray.  Lightly beat the egg whites with a tablespoon of water.  Put the breadcrumbs on a plate.  Start an assembly line for coating the eggplant slices.  Dip a slice in the eggwhites, then dredge through the breadcrumbs, coating completely.  Place the coated slice on the covered baking sheet.  Repeat with all the slices.  Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, flip the slices over, then bake for another 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Remove from the oven, set aside, and lower the oven temperature to 350F.

To make the meat sauce, brown the ground beef in a large saute pan.  Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Add the wine.  Simmer the mixture until slightly reduced.

Add the cinnamon, allspice, parsley, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and sugar.  Simmer uncovered for 15 minutes.  It will be a drier, chunkier sauce, not a thick and juicy tomato sauce.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

To make the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a small sauce pan over low heat.  Add the flour, whisking constantly until smooth and incorporated into the butter.  It will look like a paste.  Let cook for a minute, being careful not to let it burn.

Add the warm milk in a slow stream, whisking constantly.  Simmer over low until it thickens.  Do not let it come to a boil.

Remove from heat.  Add 1/2 a cup of the milk mixture to the egg yolks, whisking constantly.  This will temper the yolks so they do not cook in the hot mixture.  Then add the egg yolk mixture back into the milk mixture, again whisking constantly until incorporated.  Add the pinch of nutmeg.

Return to heat and simmer, stirring, until it significantly thickens.

It's finally time to assemble the moussaka.  Lightly grease a deep 9x9 pan (a lasagna pan).  Sprinkle the bottom with breadcrumbs, and top with a layer of potatoes.  Leave a small border around the edge to allow the sauce to fill in the sides when you add it.

Top with a layer of eggplant slices.

Add all of the meat sauce on top of the eggplant layer, and sprinkle 1/4 of the grated cheese on top.

Add another layer of eggplant slices, and a second 1/4 of the cheese.

Finally, pour the bechamel sauce over the top, allowing it to spread down the sides of the whole thing.  Smooth the top with a knife.  (Mine was a bit runnier than it should have been, because I was short on a few ingredients, but I assure you, it made no difference in taste.)  Sprinkle the top with the rest of the cheese.

Bake for 45 minutes, until the cheese is a glorious golden brown and your house smells divine.  Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes, or your tongue will probably, like mine, be burned.

This is a dish that reheats excellently, and really only seemed to get better.  I had two servings the first night, and only stopped myself from eating more by promising I would share it with my fellow Redhead in Crime, Katie.

Seriously, this dish makes up for missing Greek Fest, and then some.  There will be tweaking with the next go-round, but I could have doubled my recipe and still finished it all within the week.

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