A friend recently became a first-time grandmother, and when we went out to lunch she was exhausted. She had been cooking meals for the new parents, and collapsed into her chair saying she hadn't finished making a moussaka before she had to leave.
"You," she said, "could do the world a big service by coming up with a quick and easy moussaka."
Moussaka is, in short, an eggplant and meat casserole, one of Greece's national dishes. I did ask why she picked such a labor-intensive dish to make the young couple, who probably would have been grateful with a baked ziti. But the notion of a simple moussaka stuck in my mind.
I started looking at moussaka recipes, and remembered why I never make it. The bechamel sauce; the slow-simmered tomato sauce; the thinly sliced, salted and fried eggplant (in some cases lining the casserole pan!); the sliced, sautéed or mashed potatoes; the finely chopped lamb shoulder. I started to feel tired just thinking about it.
But I owed my friend a recipe.
Traditional Greek cooks will probably flinch and shake their heads when they see some of the shortcuts I've taken. The potatoes are diced and baked, and then get a casual mush in the casserole pan. I used Japanese eggplants, which have few seeds and less bitterness, thus eliminating the need to salt them, and they are diced and baked alongside the potatoes (less oil, less hands on time). The tomato sauce is created right into the sauteed lamb, which is bought pre-ground. And the bechamel is replaced with a quickly stirred-together sauce made from eggs, creme fraiche and yogurt. A sprinkle of kashkaval cheese (a Greek sheep's milk cheese) finishes it off, but if you can't find that, grated Parmesan will do just fine.
You can make all the components a day ahead and then assemble and bake.
This is a nice dish for holiday entertaining — comforting and indulgent at the same time — and you can assemble the casserole early in the day and bake it just before dinner. Serve with a big, leafy, green salad.
I can't yet picture the day I am cooking as a grandmother. But for the first time, I can envision making moussaka without needing a vacation afterward.
Start to finish: 2 hours
1 1/2 pounds Japanese eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 or 5 eggplants)
2 pounds Yukon golden potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds ground lamb
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch nutmeg (optional)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (optional)
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 8-ounce tub creme fraiche or 1 cup Greek yogurt, preferably whole milk
1/2 cup half and half
1/3 cup grated kashkaval cheese or Parmesan
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Grease a 2- or 3-quart shallow baking dish. Spray two rimmed baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray and places the cubed eggplant on one of the baking sheets, the potatoes on the other. Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over each of the sheets and toss well. Spread out the vegetables in a single layer, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast for about 40 minutes, until golden and tender.
Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium heat, add 1 more tablespoon olive oil, and saute the onion and garlic until tender, about 4 minutes. Add the ground lamb and saute until the lamb is completely browned, about 6 minutes. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg (if using) and season with salt and pepper. Add the crushed tomatoes and bay leaf, bring to a simmer (there won't be much liquid, but enough to bubble slightly), and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and chopped parsley.
While the lamb sauce is simmering, in a small bowl combine the eggs, creme fraiche or yogurt and half and half. Season with salt and pepper and stir to blend well.
Place the cooked potatoes in the prepared baking dish, spreading them out over the bottom, and use a fork or potato masher to lightly crush them. Remove the bay leaf and discard, then distribute the lamb in the tomato sauce over the potatoes. Finish with an even layer of the baked eggplant. Evenly pour the cream mixture over the casserole, then sprinkle the grated cheese over it. Bake for about 45 minutes, until bubbly and browned on top. Serve hot.