Recreating traditional Greek cuisine: Moussaka and Greek salad

If there is one food that reminds me of my time spent in Greece, it is eggplant. It was everywhere – in main courses, in dips, … as well as in other places that I just can’t recall. I’m pretty sure I ate enough eggplant to prevent the Greek economy from defaulting for another month. Yes sir, they can thank me for that.

Since I considered moussaka to be a bit of a kitchen challenge, I decided to limit the chance of any potentially devastating results by using a Canadian Living recipe to make mine. Always delicious, always reliable. The recipe was so detailed that it took up two pages of my cookbook.

Prior to my European travels, I had always flipped right past the page, scoffing at what I thought was just some sort of bastardized shepherd’s pie. Now I have to prevent myself from drooling every time I see the picture. Ladylike, I know.

A word for the wise: if you are looking for a quick dinner solution, moussaka is not it. From start to finish, this one dish took about three hours in total. Okay, maybe two and a half. Either way, this is serious business.

Actually, this meal was the bearer of several unexpected delays.

First, the inevitable – eggplant and its high maintenance state that requires it to be salted, dehydrated, rinsed and patted dry before it goes in the oven. Your patience will be tested.

The next delay was thanks to utter disorganization on my part. I didn’t have milk, something that is normally a pretty integral part of any cheese sauce, of which this dish demanded. When I went to the corner store next door, they were out of all large cartons, and so I got several smaller ones to compensate. I only dropped them once on the way home.

Finally, my lack of baking pans (I had used them to bring these cupcakes to the journalism picnic) meant that I needed to borrow one from a neighbour, otherwise spend the next two hours broiling eggplant in rounds on a foil-lined pie plate. I decided to borrow. Here’s how that went:

Hilary walks down the street, sees mother and son out on porch. She decides to ask to borrow their baking sheet.
Kid: Aren’t you that girl with that famous name? Taylor Swift or something?
Me: Haha. Hilary Duff. Nice try.
Kid: I know where you live. I’m Raffi.

New friends are the best.

Another delicious memory of Greece was the, you guessed it, Greek salad.

THE TOMATOES. Amazing. I never truly appreciated tomatoes until I ate them in Greece. I’m not even going to try to explain. I just see them in a completely different light now. Our attempt was a poor Greek man’s Greek salad, but tasty nonetheless. It also utilized some fresh produce from the Lansdowne Farmer’s Market. On top of the eggplant for the moussaka, I got heirloom tomatoes and lovely, crunchy field cucumbers. Just perfect.

Oh yes, and Gord came over for dinner. He brought baklava, which we inhaled the second dinner was through. All I want is a world where someone feeds me honey soaked pastry with a pistachio centre. Is that really too much to ask?

PS: Don’t mind the pictures. Moussaka is about as photogenic as lasagna, which is to say not at all.

Now please, won’t someone just take me back here?

The dinner view in Oia, Santorini

Recipe: Moussaka
From Canadian Living (note: we halved the recipe)
– 2 small eggplants
– 1 tbsp salt
– 2 tbsp olive oil
– 1/4 cup bread crumbs
– 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Meat Sauce:
– 1 lb (450-ish grams) lean ground beef
– 1 onion, chopped
– 2 garlic cloves, minced
– 1/2 tbsp dried oregano
– 1/2 tsp cinnamon
– 1/4 tsp pepper
– 1/2 cup red wine
– 1/2 can (19 oz/540 mL) tomatoes
– 1/2 can (156 mL) tomato paste  – eat the rest from the can, it is delicious
– 1 tbsp dried parsley

Cheese Sauce:
– 1/8 cup butter
– 1/8 cup flour
– 1 cup milk
– 1/4 tsp salt
– 1/4 tsp nutmeg
– 1/4 tsp pepper
– 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
– 2 eggs, beaten
– 1 cup pressed dry cottage cheese

Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C).

Cut eggplants into 1/4-inch thick slices; layer in colander, sprinkling each layer with salt. Let stand for 30 minutes.

Meat Sauce: Meanwhile, in large skillet, cook beef over high heat, breaking up with spoon, for 5 minutes or until no longer pink. Spoon off any fat. Add onions, garlic, oregano, cinnamon and pepper to pan; cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until onions are softened.

Add wine, tomatoes and tomato paste, breaking up tomatoes with spoon; bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer vigorously for 10 minutes or until mixture does not fill in when spoon is drawn through pan. Stir in parsley. Set aside.

Rinse eggplant; drain well and pat dry. In batches, brush eggplant with oil and broil on baking sheet, turning once, for 8 to12 minutes or until golden and translucent. Set aside.

Cheese Sauce: In saucepan, melt butter over medium heat; whisk in flour and cook, whisking, for 2 minutes, without browning. Gradually whisk in milk until boiling and thickened enough to coat back of spoon. Season with salt, nutmeg and pepper. Let stand for 10 minutes to cool slightly, stirring occasionally.

Rinse feta under cold water; drain well. In large bowl, whisk together feta, eggs and cottage cheese; whisk in cheese sauce.

Spread half of the meat sauce into a greased casserole dish.

Spoon 1/2 cup (125 mL) of the cheese sauce on top, spreading evenly. Layer with half of the eggplant, overlapping if necessary. Repeat layers once. Pour remaining cheese sauce over top.

Combine bread crumbs with Parmesan cheese; sprinkle over casserole. Bake in oven for 50 minutes or until browned and bubbly. Let stand for 15 minutes; cut into squares.

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