Today I have a special post. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share a love story between two friends. If you read all the way to the end, you’ll get to see the step shots for Moussaka, the Greek dish I got to learn as the story unfolded.
Over New Year’s, two longtime friends came to stay with my husband and me. Maria lives in Cyprus and Chris lives in Oakland, Calif. No sooner had they sat down at our kitchen table the night they arrived they announced – much to our delight – they were in love and getting married.
Chris and Maria met nine years ago when they, along with some friends, decided to open a bookstore on the island of Santorini in Greece. The group found a small whitewashed building overlooking the Aegean to rent, and Atlantis Books (you really should click that link and check it out.) was born. Over the years the two became close – almost like siblings. They bickered and fought, and both smart and stubborn, in the early days, they often disagreed about how tasks at the shop should be completed.
The first few years in the bookshop were rugged. Without much money, the group slept on the floor of the shop and took turns cooking humble meals in the small kitchenette with a primitive wood burning stove. Maria recalls that one of her first stirrings for Chris was when he would build a good fire for her to cook from. For special occasions, when they could afford meat and dairy, Maria would make moussaka (mu-sa-KAH), a Greek dish consisting of layers of ground lamb or beef and sliced eggplant topped with a bechamel sauce and baked. Maria was born in Cyprus but moved to London when she was seven. She learned to make moussaka watching her mother make the meals of her childhood in their new English home.
Last summer Chris wasn’t able to make it out to the shop as he’d planned. Not seeing each other changed something in them. Over the course of many long phone conversations they both realized the feelings they had for one another and decided they should plan a trip to see each other in person. This past Christmas, Maria flew to the states to see Chris, and something clicked.
While the two were visiting Nashville we shared many lovely meals together. One evening Maria taught me to make moussaka. Eggplant isn’t something I cook with very often, and I’ve never made a bechamel sauce (a classic French white sauce made by stirring milk into a butter-flour roux). One of the tricks of the dish is to salt the eggplant to release its moisture before baking. In Greece Maria would salt hers and let it sit on the terrace in the sun for a few hours.
While we were cooking we talked about Greece. I was able to visit Santorini with my husband a few years ago and fell in love with the food. We had grilled octopus and fresh fish, flaky pastries scented with dill and oregano, and lots of tzatziki, a cucumber yogurt sauce with garlic and dill. Dill and oregano are ubiquitous in Greece – I can remember taking a walk through the hills of Santorini and being overwhelmed by the the scent of wild oregano growing in the countryside.
I loved having Maria and Chris with us and hearing about the journey they have ahead. They’ll marry in Oakland this summer and are planning a more religious ceremony in Greece in 2014. It’s lovely and a little strange to see two old friends fall in love, but I feel really honored to have been some of the first to celebrate with them. To me, sharing a good meal with dear friends is one of life’s greatest pleasures, and I look forward to many more meals with these two as husband and wife in the years to come.
And with that, I give you Maria’s Moussaka. Enjoy!
Eggplant drying in the window’s sun.
Pre-bake a layer of potatoes.
Pre-baking the eggplant, sprinkled with cumin.
Maria layering the potatoes and eggplant! Isn’t she wonderful?!
More layering of eggplant. Ignore the second dish – we made a second one at the same time. The recipe below is just for one large one.
Making the bechamel. You’ll know when it’s done. It thickens so much that the lines from the whisk remain in the sauce.
Then you pour the bechamel over the Mousaka layers, as you have them so far. Then sprinkle with a bit of cheese and bake until everything is heated through and bubbling, and the top begins to brown.
And this gloriousness is what it looks like after it bakes. We broiled it for about 2 minutes right at the end to brown it.
You can see here how the bechamel makes a delicious puffy lid atop the eggplant, potato and meat mixture.
And here she is, plated with a light arugula salad. Yum!
Yield: 6-8 servings
Prep Time: At least 2.5 hours
Cook Time: 30-45 minutes
Total Time: 3-4 hours (a great Sunday afternoon project!)
My Greek Cypriot friend Maria Papagapiou taught me to make this recipe recently when she was visiting Nashville. My husband Andrew fell in love with Maria's Mousaka the first time she made it for him at Atlantis Books, a wonderful bookstore in Santorini that she and some friends started nearly 10 years ago.
4 medium potatoes cut into 1/4-inch slices
3 eggplants cut into 1/4-inch slices
extra virgin olive oil
1 bunch fresh oregano
3-4 tablespoons ground cumin
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 lb ground beef or lamb
1/2 can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
3 cups milk
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
Place potato slices in a large bowl and fill with water and several tablespoons of salt; set aside. Place several colanders over a clean dish towel (to catch excess water) and line with paper towels. Place one layer of eggplant in each, sprinkling with salt. Place paper towel over first layer and add another layer of eggplant, repeat with remaining eggplant. Place in the sun or other warm area for at least two hours to allow liquid to be released.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Drizzle a 9x12-inch heavy baking dish with olive oil. Layer potato slices evenly, drizzling with olive oil and torn or chopped oregano leaves between each. Bake potatoes 20 minutes, until cooked through. Meanwhile, to further dry out eggplant, place in single layers on baking sheets, sprinkle with cumin and bake in oven with potatoes until mostly cooked through.
Meanwhile, prepare mince (sauteed beef), as Maria says. In a tablespoon or two of olive oil, saute onion until translucent (5-7 min), add garlic and cook until fragrant (1 min), then add beef, crumbling with a wooden spoon until beginning to brown. Add cinnamon, tomatoes and tomato paste and cook until most of the liquid has evaporated and meat is cooked through.
Layer cooked eggplant over potatoes, then add mince layer.
Whisk eggs in small bowl until frothy and completely combined. To prepare bechamel, melt butter in heavy-bottomed sauce pan. Once melted, sprinkle flour into pot and whisk to incorporate any lumps until a smooth paste forms. Cook three minutes, whisking constantly. Slowly add milk and and eggs. Whisk 10-15 minutes until sauce thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon heavily. The sauce is done when it's thick enough to retain marks from whisk. Pour sauce over mince layer to create a smooth top layer for Mousaka. Sprinkle Parmesan over top.
Bake 30-45 minutes (still at 350 degrees F) until heated through and top is beginning to brown. You can broil for the last 2 minutes to force browning, if desired. Serve immediately.