Moussaka with Greek Salad

In the summer of 2007, I was fortunate enough to spend 4 weeks studying abroad in Greece. It was truly an enlightening experience for me. Not only was it my first time visiting Europe (or another country aside from Canada), but I was also traveling a foreign country with 27 other students, all from different backgrounds, and all with different eating habits.

I had no idea some 21 year olds were such picky eaters.

I was raised not to be a picky eater, and to eat my damn vegetables. There was no other option in my house. When I was 5, I got into a fight with my mother over whether or not I liked green beans. I insisted that I did not, and had refused to eat them, but she wasn't having it. Can't blame her either, since apparently I had happily eaten green beans the week before.

I did not win that fight, thank goodness. Sometimes I wonder what would have happen if she had given in. Would I have been allowed to refuse other vegetables? What else would I have gotten away with? How unhealthy would I be if I never ate anything green? Would I have gotten over it on my own, or would I still be making faces and pushing plates away at 30 years old? I shudder at that last thought.

I'm glad she stuck to her guns, and told me to shut up and eat those green beans. Thanks to her gumption, and my father's creative cooking, I grew up to be a rather adventurous eater, which made my month long adventure in the Mediterranean positively delicious.

The Acropolis of Athens, Greece

Let's talk about Greece, kids. It's a magical and tasty land, filled with history, philosophy, democracy, mythology, weird meats, and wines made with grapes you've never heard of. Most of the meals we ate were comprised of salad, grilled meats and sausages, and fresh baked bread served with olive oil for dipping. Everything was fresh, seasoned beautifully, and served with pride. Greeks love to feed people, it's true. The mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding is perhaps the most realistic character in any movie ever made.

The salad was the kicker for me. In America, when we order a Greek salad, we are served our usual romaine lettuce, with tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, olives, and red onion, with some sort of vinaigrette for dressing. We almost got it right, but there's one big difference between what we Americans think is a "Greek salad" and the salads they actually serve in Greece.

The lettuce. Salads in Greece don't have any lettuce! It's WONDERFUL. I don't know why there's no lettuce, but I don't even care. Each salad is just a beautiful mound of fresh, ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, lightly tossed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, which is then topped with big pieces of feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and thinly sliced red onion. And NO lettuce. Honestly, the only lettuce I saw the entire month was used as a garnish. On our first night in Athens, dinner was served family-style. The salad came to the table on a large platter that was lined with big leafs of romaine. Other students at the table actually fought over the romaine, completely unimpressed by the big, juicy chunks of perfectly ripe, locally grown tomatoes and cukes. I couldn't believe it. All of this stunning produce, and these 21 year olds were fighting over romaine!

Much to my delight, this magnificent salad was served with every lunch and every dinner, every day, for 4 weeks straight. I was in heaven. Other people on the trip were in their own personal hell, but that's okay. I ate all their tomatoes.

View from our hotel rooms in Delphi, Greece

Although not everyone was as excited about eating ripe tomatoes and olives while sitting by the Mediterranean Sea as I was, most everyone on the trip found at least one dish they enjoyed. One that was unanimously well received was moussaka. Moussaka is a layered casserole-like dish made with lamb, eggplant, and potatoes, and topped with béchamel sauce. It's a rather involved dish, and takes quite a while to put together, but the results are delicious and heart-warming.

There's many, many recipes out there for moussaka. Like any other ethnic food, every family has their own recipe and method of making it. This moussaka recipe, which I've adapted from Epicurious, is as close as I could get it to the moussaka we had in Greece. It's very traditional to use lamb in Greek cooking, but it is acceptable to substitute beef or pork instead. Likewise, you don't have to fry the eggplant, you could just sauté it, but it's better fried.

Moussaka: layers of eggplant, potatoes, lamb, and béchamel

You should absolutely go to your favorite wine shop and have them recommend a dry Greek wine for you to serve with this meal. Don't worry about the fact that the wine will be made from grapes you don't recognize. There are thousands of grapes out there that are turned into wine, far beyond the realms of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Broaden your wine horizons! You won't regret it.

The wine we had with this meal is actually a bottle I bought from the vineyard while I was in Greece. Somehow I managed to keep it safe these past 8 years. It held up well, and it was the perfect accompaniment to the moussaka and salad.

Tsantali Vineyards

Ingredients

Preparation

  1. Rinse the eggplant and slice into disks of equal thickness, about ¼ inch. Place the slices on a wire rack over a cookie sheet (or in a colander set in a large bowl). Sprinkle salt on both sides and allow to drain, for about 20 minutes. Pat both sides dry with paper towels.
    I like to leave the skin on, but you can peel the eggplant if you wish.
  2. Place the potatoes in a pot and cover with water. Bring the water to a boil, and cook the potatoes until fork tender, about 8-10 minutes.
  3. Drain the potatoes, cool, and cut into ¼ inch thick slices. Set aside.
  4. Lightly batter the eggplant slices: Dredge each slice in seasoned flour, dip in beaten egg, and then dredge in flour again.
  5. Heat 3 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Fry the eggplant slices, 2-3 minutes on each side, until tender and golden brown. Set aside.
  6. In a large skillet, heat 1 tbsp of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until tender, stirring frequently, about 10 to 12 minutes.
  7. Add the ground lamb to the pan. Stirring frequently, cook the meat until no longer visibly raw, about 5 minutes.
  8. Add the garlic, tomatoes, spices, bay leaf, and ½ cup of water. Add salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer for about 30 minutes.
  9. In a small bowl, whisk together the red wine and tomato paste. Pour into lamb mixture, and stir to combine. Simmer the meat sauce for an additional 10 minutes, until the alcohol evaporates and the sauce smells sweet.
    Use the red wine and tomato paste mixture to deglaze the pan. Scrape the bottom of skillet with a wooden spoon and incorporate all those flavorful bits into the sauce.
  10. Remove the bay leaf from the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.
  11. Prepare the béchamel sauce.
    1. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
    2. Whisk in the flour and continue whisking for about 5 minutes, until the flour turns golden brown.
    3. Slowly whisk in the milk, being sure to avoid lumps.
    4. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring constantly, until the milk thickens, about 5-10 minutes.
    5. Remove the mixture from heat. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.
    6. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks. Temper the egg yolks into the milk mixture by whisking a ½ cup of the heated milk into the egg yolks, and then slowly add the mixture back into the saucepan, while whisking constantly to avoid lumps.
    7. Stir in Parmesan cheese, and season again if necessary.
    8. Strain the finished sauce through a sieve before using to remove any accidental lumps (optional, though highly recommended).
  12. Preheat the oven to 350 °F.
  13. Lightly grease a 9"x13" baking pan with cooking spray. Coat greased pan with breadcrumbs.
  14. Place a layer of fried eggplant slices on the bottom of the pan. Cut slices to fit, if necessary.
  15. Spread the meat sauce evenly over the layer of eggplant.
  16. Arrange potato slices in an even layer over the meat sauce.
  17. Add another layer of eggplant slices over the potatoes.
  18. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of eggplant. Use a rubber spatula to evenly smooth out the sauce.
  19. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the béchamel is thick and golden brown.
    Allow to rest for 15-20 minutes before serving.
  20. While the Moussaka is resting, prepare the salad!
    1. Cut the red onion into very thin slices. Set aside.
    2. Slice the feta cheese, if necessary, into ¼ inch slices. Set aside.
    3. Slice the cucumbers and tomatoes into bite-sized pieces and place in large bowl.
    4. Drizzle olive oil and red wine vinegar over sliced cucumbers and tomatoes. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Gently toss to evenly coat.
    5. Arrange the salad. Spoon ¼ of the cucumbers and tomatoes onto each plate. Top with 1 oz of feta cheese, 5 kalamata olives, and a few slices of red onion.
Pair this wonderful meal with a dry Greek wine, and be sure to serve some baklava for dessert! And maybe follow the meal with a little 300 or Mamma Mia! to really round out the whole Greek evening. ☺