Spring is such a celebratory time of year … colorful blossoms awaken us from our winter slumber but the cool rainy nights still beckon us to enjoy warm comfort food. Moussaka, the traditional Greek casserole, layers ground lamb seasoned with oregano, cumin, cinnamon, garlic and mint and crispy eggplant with a rich spiced cream sauce. Some versions may include tomatoes, which I substitute for red bell peppers for a tighter casserole that can be cut rather than spooned onto the plate. This dish takes a bit of planning but is well worth the effort, especially if you are celebrating Mom by cooking dinner for her. Serve with a crisp green salad, steamed asparagus with a lemon vinaigrette and strawberries macerated with honey for dessert. Cheers to Mom and all the wonderful flavors of spring.
- 1 eggplant, sliced 1/2”
- 1/2 cup oil, peanut or grapeseed
- 3/4 cup milk
- 4 eggs, whisked well
- 3 cups panko bread crumbs
- Salt, pepper and cumin to taste
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 onion piquet (1/2 medium onion with (2) cloves studded through (1) bay leaf into onion)
- Salt, white ground pepper to taste
- Small pinch of ground nutmeg
- 2 oz. unsalted butter
- 2 oz. flour
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1/2 medium red bell pepper, diced
- 3/4 tsp. oregano, dried
- 3/4 tsp. cumin, ground
- 1/3 tsp. cinnamon, ground
- 1/4 tsp. sweet paprika, ground
- 1 Tbsp. garlic, minced
- 2 Tbsp. mint, fresh, chopped
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 2 Tbsp. grated parmesan
Preheat oven to 400 F.
- Sprinkle salt over sliced eggplant to leach water out of eggplant. Let sit for 1/2 hour and then pat dry. Repeat on opposite side.
- Make béchamel sauce. Heat milk over low heat with onion piquet in milk.
- Make roux by gently melting butter over low heat. Add flour and stir to combine until consistency of wet sand. Cook over low heat for 5-7 minutes until mixture has a toasty nut smell. Remove onion piquet from milk. Gradually add warm milk to roux making sure to fully incorporate the milk before adding more. Season with salt, pepper and a very light touch of nutmeg. Cook for 10-12 minutes over medium heat to thicken. Sauce should be spoonable.
- Make lamb mixture. Cook onions over low heat to light golden brown color. Add peppers and half of the herb/spice blend, and cook over low heat for 5 minutes to blend flavors. Add garlic and cook another 3-4 minutes to soften. Add mint. Remove from heat. Cook ground lamb over medium heat adding other half of herb/spice blend. Cook until just brown. Remove from heat. Combine lamb and pepper onion mixture.
- Fry eggplant. Heat oil over medium-high heat. Cleanse eggplant of salt by dipping in milk. Dredge in flour, egg and breadcrumbs in that order. Fry eggplant to golden brown on both sides. Remove and drain on paper towels.
- Assemble. Place eggplant in bottom of small casserole. Cut into smaller pieces to make an even layer to the edges. Top with lamb mixture. Top lamb with béchamel sauce. Repeat layering until casserole is full.
Top final layer with grated parmesan.
Cook in oven 40 minutes until golden brown.
Remove and let set for 15 minutes before serving. Serves four.
Manda Hudak is the savory chef instructor at The Culinary Institute of Montana at Flathead Valley Community College. For more information about the program, visit www.culinaryinstituteofmt.com.
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