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Recipes

Moussaka is the Dish You Never Knew You Wanted to Cook

Leslie Brenner’s recipe from Cooks Without Borders is a perfect entry to fall comfort season.
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Moussaka from Leslie Brenner is silky, comforting, and the most ideal way to welcome cooler temperatures. Courtesy of Leslie Brenner

If you’re in a certain Mediterranean mood, there’s nothing more marvelous than a great moussaka. With its layers of potato, eggplant, tomatoey lamb sauce, and silky béchamel, Greece’s most famous dish has irresistible appeal.

In fact, when it’s carefully made, moussaka is one of the best dishes in the universe.

Where to find that carefully made moussaka? Right in your own kitchen. One reader of Cooks Without Borders, my international cooking website, has told me our recipe, fragrant with allspice and cinnamon, is nothing short of life-changing. (Curious about the history of the dish? You can find it there, too.)

Traditional versions start by frying eggplant; instead, I go a sheet-pan route, seasoning and drizzling olive oil on thick slices, and roasting them to melty tenderness. It’s easier, less messy, and results in a lighter moussaka with a more lovely caramelized eggplant flavor.

The béchamel-and-cheese topping on my moussaka is a little different than traditional versions as well. Lightened with yogurt, it’s lighter, brighter, and fluffier.

For the ground lamb component, I love to use the locally raised Dorper lamb we’re lucky to find in North Texas through Capra Foods—a cool network of ranchers using regenerative agricultural practices. Sara’s Market and Bakery in Richardson carries the Capra lamb in a variety of cuts, and you can also sometimes find it at Central Market and Whole Foods. I’ve seen it offered as ground meat at Whole Foods; you might try asking the kind meat department folks at Sara’s or Central Market to grind some to order for you. Otherwise, ground lamb is easy to find, and your moussaka will be delicious in any case.

There couldn’t be a better moment to indulge in it: Eggplants are at their best this month, and it’s finally cool enough to heat the oven. Three cheers for comfort food season!

(Serves 6 to 8)

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Courtesy of Leslie Brenner

Cooks Without Borders Moussaka

Ingredients

For the base

  • 2 or 3 eggplants, about 2 pounds total
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided, plus additional to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus additional for oiling the baking dish
  • 1 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 pounds ground lamb
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or 1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes)
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 3 cups canned diced tomatoes, including their juice
  • 2 bay leaves

For the yogurt béchamel

  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground white pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 3/4 cup full-fat plain yogurt (regular or Greek)
  • 6 ounces grated white cheddar cheese

Directions

  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees F. and line a baking sheet with parchment. Trim the ends off the eggplants and peel them in vertical stripes, leaving half the peel on the eggplants. Slice them into rounds about 5/8 inches thick. Place the rounds in a large bowl, sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and 10 or so good grinds of black pepper, drizzle over them 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, and toss well, coating the eggplant slices as evenly as possible. Lay the eggplant slices on the parchment-lined baking sheet and roast until they are tender and golden, about 30 minutes. Set aside to cool on the baking sheet.
  2. Now let’s make the lamb sauce. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet, add the onions, and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until they are soft and translucent, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for another minute. Push the onions and garlic to the edges of the pan, add the ground lamb, raise heat to high, and sprinkle with the remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cook the lamb, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, till it has lost its pinkness and is somewhat browned, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the lamb with the cinnamon, allspice, and Aleppo pepper and cook another minute, stir to combine, and cook another minute. Add the red wine and cook, scraping up all the browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon, until the wine is nearly evaporated, about 3 or 4 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, add the bay leaves, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. The the sauce starts looking dry while it’s cooking, add 1/4 cup of water; you want it to be saucy. Check the consistency when it’s finished cooking; if it’s a little dry, stir in 1/2 cup water. Adjust seasoning, adding salt and/or Aleppo pepper as necessary. Set aside.
  3. Turn the oven to 400 degrees. While the sauce is cooking, lay eggplant slices in one layer over the potatoes. In order to fit them together as closely as possible, you’ll want to squish them a bit so they’re misshapen (as shown in the photo).
  4. Remove the bay leaves from the lamb sauce, and pour the sauce over the eggplant slices, distributing it evenly. Set aside while you make the béchamel. (Or if you’re quick, you can make the béchamel while the sauce is still cooking.) Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat, watching closely so it doesn’t burn or color. Sprinkle the flour over the butter, and whisk it together. Cook for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently with the whisk, so the flour loses its raw taste. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking as you pour. Raise the heat to medium-high, bring the liquid to a simmer, reduce heat to medium, and cook stirring frequently, until the sauce is about as thick as mayonnaise, about 3 to 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and stir in the salt, white pepper, and nutmeg.
  5. Stir the yogurt into the béchamel, then stir in the cheddar. Taste, and adjust seasoning. It should be delicious. Pour evenly over the lamb sauce in the baking pan. Bake on the middle rack of the oven (place it on a rimmed baking sheet if it’s very full) for 25 to 30 minutes, until the béchamel is golden-brown in spots. If the béchamel hasn’t browned, you can either turn the oven to broil and broil for 2 or 3 minutes, or leave it in the oven if it was almost browned.
  6. Remove the moussaka from the oven and let it rest and settle for 15 minutes before serving.

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