Monday, 17 September 2007

Moussaka (Μουσσακά)

This dish takes a long time to make, so it's worth making it in big batches to freeze some for later. It tastes just as good when taken out of the deep freeze and cooked (or heated, if you choose to pre-cook the moussaka) in a conventional oven. I usually cook the moussaka and let it cool, after which it is much much easier to cut it up and pack into individual servings in clean tupperware, and pop it into the freezer. Apart from this, I also make some small tins of moussaka without pre-cooking it, which I serve to the whole family on one of my lazy cooking days. It is a heavy meal, but there are plenty of ways to make it lighter and healthier (we prefer the authentic version). And don't forget that aubergines are not easy to freeze, so this is one of the best ways to preserve fresh garden aubergine crop; you can freeze them raw or fried, in slices or shell as for yemista or papoutsakia. Remember to use frozen aubergine (shells or slices, fried or raw, filled or empty) straight from the deep freeze. They taste just like fresh aubergine when used this way. Do not let it thaw under any circumstances; it goes soggy and is completely unappealing.

The first stage involves cooking the mince. You should start cooking this before you deal with the vegetables so that it is ready when you have finished frying (or boiling) the vegetables. I cook this mince in exactly the same way as I have described for papoutsakia or pastitsio. The mince is ready when most of the liquid has evaporated.

While this is cooking, you can prepare the vegetables. You need about 5 medium round eggplants and 5 large round (rather than oblong) potatoes, for every half kilo of mince you cook. Slice the eggplant and potatoes into thin rounds (about 3-5mm thick). The thicker, the healthier, as they won't absorb so much oil. Now fry these rounds (first the aubergine, then the potato) in olive oil till they are just brown. Drain the slices on absorbent paper to soak off some of the oil. First place HALF the aubergines slices at the bottom of the baking dish, then HALF the potatoes on top. (A healthier version omits the frying; I've heard of some people who boil the eggplant and potato slices instead, and drain them very well before they put them in the baking dish, while others do not pre-cook the vegetables at all. Suit yourself.) In restaurants, you will see moussaka being served with a layer of courgette slices, too. If you choose to add a layer of courgettes to your moussaka, they definitely don't need pre-cooking. Slice them and layer them on top of the aubergines, whether you are going to cook or freeze it. This makes a substantial healthier meal.

Now pour the mince over the layered vegetables, taking care not to let too much liquid run into the tin if you have fried or boiled the vegetables. On the other hand, if the vegetables have not been pre-cooked, the excess liquid from the mince should not be drained away. Then layer the remaining vegetables over the mince, this time starting with the potatoes, and ending off with the aubergines. Make a bechamel (white) sauce (just like for pastitsio) and pour it over the moussaka. Grate some nutmeg over the sauce. Bake in a medium oven for 40-45 minutes. If the vegetables have not been pre-cooked, the dish will need more cooking time. Test to see if it is done by inserting a knife to feel the texture of the potato. Once the moussaka is ready, let it cool before cutting, otherwise it will not slice well. You will forever be told what a good cook you are if you serve this at a dinner party.

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