Last year a friend of mine became a first-time grandmother, and when we went out to lunch she was exhausted from her first weeks of grandmotherly duty. She had been cooking meals for the new parents, and collapsed into her chair, saying that she had been making a moussaka and didn’t finish before she had to leave. “You,” she said, “could do the world a big service by coming up with a quick and easy moussaka.”
What is Moussaka?
Moussaka is, in short, a Greek-originated eggplant and meat casserole, one of their deservedly famous national dishes. I did wonder aloud why she picked such a tremendously labor-intensive dish to make for the young couple, when they probably would have been grateful with a baked ziti.
But then the moussaka idea stuck in my mind. I started looking at moussaka recipes, and remembering why I never make it. The béchamel sauce; the homemade tomato sauce; the thinly sliced, salted and fried eggplant (in some cases lining the bottom and sides of casserole pan!); the sliced, sautéed potatoes in some; the mashed potatoes in others; the finely chopped lamb shoulder in still others. I started to feel tired just thinking about making moussaka. But I owed my friend a recipe.
Traditional Greek cooks will probably flinch and shake their heads when they see some of the shortcuts I’ve taken. The potatoes are diced and baked, and then get a casual mush in the casserole pan. I used Japanese eggplant, which have very few seeds and less bitterness, thus eliminating the need to salt them, and they are diced and baked alongside the potatoes (less oil, less hands on time). The tomato sauce is created right into the sautéed lamb, which is bought pre-ground. And the béchamel is replaced with a sauce made from eggs, crème fraiche and yogurt.
A sprinkle of kashkaval cheese finishes it off (a Greek sheep’s milk cheese), but if you can’t find that, grated Parmesan will do just fine.
You can make all of the components a day ahead of time and then assemble and bake. This is a nice dish for holiday entertaining – comforting and and indulgent at the same time, and you can assemble the casserole early in the day, and bake it just before dinner. Serve with a big old salad.
I can’t yet picture the day I am cooking for either of my sons and his partner as they navigate the first few months of parenthood. But for the first moment I can envision making moussaka without taking some vacation time.
- 1 ½ Japanese eggplant peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 or 5)
- 2 pounds Yukon golden potatoes peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 4 tablespoons olive oil divided
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1 onion chopped
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 2 pounds ground lamb
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- pinch nutmeg optional
- 1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar optional
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 large eggs lightly beaten
- 1 8-ounce tub crème fraiche or 1 cup Greek yogurt, preferably whole milk
- ½ cup half and half
- ⅓ cup grated kashkaval cheese or Parmesan
- Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease a 2 or 3-quart shallow baking dish. Spray two rimmed baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray and places the cubed eggplant on one of the baking sheets, and the potatoes on the other. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over each of the vegetables and toss well. Spread out the vegetables in a single layer and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 40 minutes, until golden and tender.
- Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat, add 1 more tablespoon olive oil, and sauté the onions and garlic until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the ground lamb and sauté until the lamb is completely browned, about 6 minutes. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg (if using) and season with salt and pepper. Add the crushed tomatoes and bay leaf, bring to a simmer (there won’t be much liquid, but enough to bubble slightly), and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and chopped parsley.
- While the lamb sauce is simmering, in a small bowl, combine the eggs, crème fraiche or yogurt and half and half. Season with salt and pepper and stir to blend well.
- Place the cooked potatoes in the prepared baking dish, spreading them out over the bottom, and use a fork or a potato masher to lightly crush the potatoes. Remove the bay leaf and discard, then distribute the lamb in the tomato sauce over the potatoes, then finish with an even layer of the baked eggplant. Evenly pour the cream mixture over the casserole, then sprinkle over the grated cheese. Bake for about 45 minutes, until bubbly and browned on top. Serve hot.
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