This week I wanted to share a couple of recipes with you, one my own version of a Greek classic and the other its ancient Arab origin. Best of all, for me, is just how long this one has been around.
Moussaka (the stress is on the last syllable) is a baked lamb and eggplant casserole covered with a thick layer of béchamel sauce that becomes golden and crusty. Although to be honest I'm sure that this would have been made with just about anything that was cheap to buy.
Moussaka was probably one of the first ‘continental' dishes to become fashionable back in the 70s and the memory emerges fresh and familiar from the depths of my childhood. A soft layer of potatoes, on top of it laid down, nonchalantly, thick slices of freshly fried eggplants in a tight embrace with sizzled lamb or beef minced meat and all these under a light, crispy, velvety veil of béchamel sauce.
2 large eggplants
250ml olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tbsp flat leaf parsley, roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
850g minced lamb or pork and/or beef
1 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp dried oregano
1 bay leaf
125ml white wine
500g tomato passata
500g potatoes, peeled
120g plain flour
1 litre warm milk
A little freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and pepper
Top and tail the eggplants, then slice into 5mm thick slices. Sprinkle with salt and leave for about 30 minutes to draw out any bitter juices.
Fry onion in 3 tbsp oil until softened and golden. Add parsley and garlic and cook for another minute, then add the mince. Cook over medium-high heat until meat begins to brown, stirring with a wooden spoon. Add cinnamon, oregano and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Add wine, scraping meat juices from bottom of pan. Allow wine to evaporate a little, then add tomato passata and simmer for 30 minutes, uncovered, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, slice potatoes into 5mm slices and pat dry with a towel. Heat 4-5 tbsps oil and fry potatoes both sides in batches over a medium heat until golden and cooked through. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towel and sprinkle with salt.
Rinse eggplant with cold water and pat dry. Fry in batches in the same pan and oil as the potatoes and set aside on kitchen paper.
Preheat oven to 180°C. Arrange half the eggplant over the base of an ovenproof dish (approx 35cm long x 24cm wide x 6cm deep), slightly overlapping if necessary. Then add the potatoes in a single layer, followed by half the mince, pressing it down with the back of the spoon. Add the rest of the eggplant and then a final layer of mince.
Melt butter for béchamel in a saucepan. Whisk in flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, then gradually whisk in the warm milk. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg and continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly until thick and smooth. Spoon over mince.
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the moussaka starts to bubble and turn golden. Cut into squares and serve.
No one knows what the origin of moussaka is but the following recipe from the thirteenth-century Arabic cookbook known as the Baghdad cookery book was proposed by one food historian as the ancestor of moussaka.
Maghmuma or Muqatta'a
Cut fat meat small. Slice the tail thin and chop up small.
Take onions and eggplant, peel, half-boil, and also cut up small: these may, however, be peeled and cut up into the meat-pot, and not be boiled separately.
Make a layer of the tail at the bottom of the pan, then put on top of it a layer of meat: drop in fine-ground seasonings, dry coriander, cumin, caraway, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and salt.
On top of the meat put a layer of eggplant and onion: repeat, until only about four or five fingers' space remain in the pot. Sprinkle over each layer the ground seasonings as required.
Mix best vinegar with a little water and a trifle of saffron, and add to the pan so as to lie to a depth of two or three fingers on top of the meat and other ingredients. Leave to settle over the fire: then remove.