From Too Many Chefs -

May 5, 2004
Ode to an Eggplant

Purple glossy fruit
The berry of my delight
So good with garlic

Eggplant is one of those vegetables that I came to love late...and deeply. It's a real lifetime affair now, not one of your fly-by-night flings. When I was younger, I was suspicious: I thought ratatouille was a slimy form a torture. But at some point, without my really noticing it, I came to appreciate the sweet nuttiness of the eggplant meat and how delicious it is with garlic. Maybe it came from hearing it called aubergine, which sounds so much nicer than eggplant.

However, even in my misguided youth, I was aware that there was one eggplant dish I would gladly eat: Moussaka. I just foolishly assumed that it was good in spite of the eggplant, rather than because of it.

The cold weather and rain have persisted in Paris (what month is this - February, for the FOURTH TIME THIS YEAR?) and so last night I again turned to comfort food for our dinner. It takes a while to prepare, but I think a homemade moussaka more than repays the effort. Thanks go to my friend Grant (of the rosÚ wine kir fame) for introducing me to the proper, truly Greek way of preparing this lovely dish. (And my apologies if, in the mists of time, I have forgotten everything except your one most useful piece of advice: it is impossible to put too much grated nutmeg in a moussaka.)

Moussaka (generous dinner for two with leftovers for lunch)

3 small/2 medium eggplants
300-400g/about a pound of lamb, ground
1 large onion
2 small cloves of garlic
1 medium can of tomato paste (50g?)
1 cup red wine
1 heaping tsp beef "Better than Boullion" soup extract
olive oil
1/4 cup butter
2 cups milk
1/4 cup flour
at least one nutmeg, grated
1/2 cup parmesan, grated

Slice the eggplants thinly and salt if they are a bit old. (Young ones shouldn't be bitter and don't need salting.) Chop the onion and sautÚ in a bit of olive oil. Add the crushed garlic cloves. Turn up the heat and add the ground lamb. Cook until all the pink has left the lamb and the onions are translucsent. If necessary, drain off the fat. Add the tomato paste, the wine, the oregano, half the nutmeg, the boullion paste and a bit of water if necessary. Taste for seasonings and leave to simmer while preparing the other ingredients.

In another small saucepan, melt the butter and, once it is bubbly, add the flour. Cook for a few minutes, until the butter turns nutty brown. Slowly add the milk, whisking rapidly with a fork or whisk. Turn down the heat and let it simmer. Stir in the rest of the nutmeg.

In the bottom of a baking pan (mine is about 20x40 cm) dribble a little olive oil and spread it around the bottom of the pan. Lay a single layer of eggplant (having wiped them if necessary), cover with the meat sauce and then cover with another layer of eggplant. Continue layering the two until you are out of eggplant - ideally, you will have a tiny amount of meat sauce for the last layer. Dribble the the thickened milk (bechamel sauce, to give it its proper name) over the top of the dish and sprinkle with the parmesan.

Place in a hot (200c/415f) oven for one hour. If the top of the moussaka starts to brown too much before it's done, cover with tin foil or part of a brown paper bag. When you remove from oven, let the moussaka rest at least ten minutes before cutting it.

As my friend Grant says, it's impossible to put too much nutmeg in a moussaka. He was taught to make this dish by Greek immigrants to Australia and they should know. On my own experience, I can affirm that the nutmeg will make the topping the most popular part of the dish and that despite many efforts I have not yet managed to put too much nutmeg in the meat sauce. The fact that it is freshly grated is a natural check on the amount you'll be willing to put in the moussaka. (Which reminds me of a university friend of mine who read in the Anarchist's Cookbook that nutmeg had if consumed in a large enough quantity. My friend said they were certainly interesting, though not necessarily pleasant. Kids, don't try it at home!)

Most moussaka recipes call for frying the eggplant in olive oil before constructing the dish. As you can see, I don't bother with this step: it's less unhealthy and the eggplant cooks just fine in the tomato juices. If you want to be traditional, fry them and drain them before assembling.

Moussaka is even better the next day, in my opinion, though it's nicer if you can reheat in a proper oven rather than a microwave.

Lastly, my apologies for basely stealing a photo from another site but the moussaka took so long to make and we were so hungry...that the camera got lost in the shuffle. I hope the poem made up for it.

Posted by Meg in Sussex at May 5, 2004 8:18 AM | TrackBack

Eggplant triggers that innate "ick" factor because it really can get slimy when cooked incorrectly, and we associate slime with rot which is just not pleasant.

I used to only have eggplant breaded and parmagiana'd but nowadays, I like it Asian foods, sliced in packets of phyllo and even in a vegetarian version of moussaka.

Posted by Barrett on May 5, 2004 at 10:54 AM

Or just brushed with olive oil and grilled on your grill pan...!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 5, 2004 at 11:13 AM

I really thought about adding that to the sandwich above, along with some hard boiled eggs but backed off at the last minute.

Posted by Barrett on May 5, 2004 at 12:22 PM

I'm not sure whether they wouldn't be too chewy for a sandwich (or over cooked if they are not). I like grilled aubergine best in a salad with other grilled vegetables. If you wanted to add them to a sandwich you could do as I did on the tartine and use eggplant caviar as a condiment!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 5, 2004 at 12:45 PM