I hate being sick. Particularly with any sort of stomach bug. As a keen cook (and even keener eater), it hits me where it hurts. As a result, I’ve been off my food this past week, living off bread and bananas, water and sweet black tea. By the weekend I was badly in need of something nourishing, tasty and comforting.
Which is why I found myself pottering around on Sunday morning making moussaka. It’s not something I’ve made before, but the idea took hold and I couldn’t shake the thought of layers of soft aubergine, unctuous meat and that soft creamy white sauce. It’s the very definition of comfort food.
Plus, in this awful summer rain, it brings to mind the warm thyme-scented breeze and azure sky of the Adriatic, all sun baked rock and clear water. Elements somewhat lacking in our blustery British June.
My expanded moussaka vegetable selection
I’ve had a copy of Vefa’s Kitchen (apparently an essential tome in Greece) for a while now because I’ve wanted to explore Greek cooking. Inevitably, I made one or two changes, and would make one or two more next time I make this. Even so, it’s a great recipe. Flexible rather than prescriptive, as all the best ones are.
Moussaka is not dissimilar to lasagna, except that it uses vegetables in the place of pasta. And like the best lasagnes, the point is not the meat, it’s the rest. The minced beef sauce acts as a garnish and gives the dish a meaty depth that underpins the silky vegetables. Moussaka is one of those almost healthy all-in-one kind of dishes. It looks lovely on the plate too.
I went beyond aubergine and added red romano peppers and yellow courgettes. They gave the dish a little crisp sweetness and colour to the finished dish. I also added fresh thyme and dried oregano to the parsley. I really wanted the aromas I associate with the Med to come out.
Dried oregano is one of the very few dried herbs I’m happy using. Particularly as this batch came from the garden of my Cypriot relatives and was exceptionally aromatic. It’s the only herb that seems to gain taste and aroma through drying, where most others come to resemble sawdust.
I also added some chilli to the beef to add a little heat. The change I would make next time is to cook the beef for longer and slower, adding a little red wine to deepen the flavour. It was good as it was, but tasted a tiny bit anaemic to me. If I have time, I’m going to try making moussaka with my short rib ragu instead of minced beef. That’ll be a real treat.
Fresh from the oven
An aubergine, courgette and red pepper moussaka
Serves six with a side, or four hungry bellies.
750ml full fat milk
3 tblsp plain flour
Nutmeg, salt and pepper to season
3 egg yolks
5 tblsp double cream
Heat the milk until just before it starts boiling and remove from the heat. Melt the butter in a saucepan over a low-medium heat. When it’s melted stir in the flour and continue stirring and cooking for a minute.
Turn the heat off and, while stirring, add a little of the milk at a time until you have a thick liquid. Turn the heat on low and simmer for 15 minutes until the liquid is the consistency of cream.
Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper and levee to cool. When cool stir in the cream and egg yolks.
2 aubergines – cut into 1cm slices
2 large courgettes – cut into 1 cm slices
5 roman peppers – de-seeded and cut into 4-5cm squares
Olive oil – at least half a cup
500g minced beef
1 onion – finely chopped
2 cloves garlic – finely sliced
2 red chillies – seeded and finely sliced
1 tin chopped tomatoes
A handful of parsley – chopped
A handful of time – leaves stripped
A couple of good pinches of dried oregano
Quarter tsp of allspice
Half tsp caster sugar
Salt and pepper
1 egg white – lightly beaten
Grated parmesan – about a half to three-quarters cup
Butter for greasing
First make the white sauce and set aside while you do the rest of the moussaka.
Fry the aubergine in oil until brown on both sides then drain the slices on kitchen towel. Fry the peppers and courgettes until cooked and drain on kitchen towel.
Add a couple more tablespoons of oil to the pan and fry the onion, garlic and chilli until soft. Add the beef and stir and fry for about 5 more minutes.
Add the tomatoes, allspice, sugar and simmer for about 15-20 minutes until some of the liquid has bubbled away. Leave to cool, then fold in the herbs and egg white.
Grease a large, deep oven-proof dish. Layer half the vegetables in the bottom, spoon over half the beef mixture and scatter half the cheese over it. Layer the rest of the vegetables on top, then the beef and scatter over the last of the cheese.
Pour over the white sauce mix. Heat the oven to 200C, then bake for about an hour. You may want to finish it off with a couple of minutes under the grill to brown the top.