There are certain things you simply don’t order in a restaurant because they can never compare to the version you make at home. I have a whole host of Italian dishes for which this is true. Being part Italian, I grew up on my mum’s lasagne (which is without doubt the best in the world) and I refuse to let anyone order lasagne in a restaurant in my presence: “Don’t you dare; I’ll make it for you myself with my mum’s recipe – it will be a thousand times better”. I won’t even order lasagne in Italy. Restaurants just can’t possibly match the quality that is borne from the undivided attention and care you can offer at home. And I think the same could be true for moussaka.
Moussaka is such a homely dish: layers of fried aubergines, potato and spiced mince, topped with thick creamy béchamel sauce. What could be more welcoming for a Wednesday night dinner for our good friend Joe?
We had invited Joe around for about 7.30 and at 6pm I rolled in from the office ready to get down to work. It had been a while since I’d made moussaka, but as I make my mum’s lasagne all the time I thought it would be fine. I mean, it’s not that different is it? With only an hour and a half to get the moussaka on the table, I soon remembered that it is in fact very different and subsequently that I had woefully underestimated the time our old friend the moussaka takes!
Your first job is to slice the aubergines and salt them to draw out the bitter juices. From that moment on, I knew I was fighting a losing battle: that alone takes 30 minutes! Then comes making the mince, which takes 15 minutes to assemble and needs to simmer for at least 30 minutes to marinade and reduce. The third task is to slice and fry the potatoes, in batches: 15 minutes. Next, you’ve got to rinse, dry and fry the aubergine slices (again in batches: 20 minutes). All this time you should have been warming and infusing your milk ready to actually make your béchamel sauce (10 mins) before you put all your layers together ready for 45 minutes in the oven. What was I thinking? Needless to say, we did not sit down to eat until gone 9pm.
Luckily, three things came to my rescue ensuring that the evening wasn’t a complete and utter disaster. 1) Joe is a very laid back chap who was very happy chatting to Sven and watching 2) the football whilst drinking 3) wine. Despite the rather agonising delay, the finished product was delicious; and in the opinion of all that ate it, well worth the wait. I served it with a simple rocket salad, which let the troublesome moussaka bask gloriously in the limelight. After all that effort you doubt want to overshadow it with anything too complicated. Let it speak for itself.
In summary, this dish is really very very good and definitely best made at home, but my advice to those who work during the week: keep it for the weekend, eh? (Alternatively, split your work and make the mince the day before).
Diner comments: “You can file this one under success!”
- 2 large aubergines
- 2 medium red onions, finely chopped
- A handful of flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 500g lean minced beef
- 500g minced pork
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- 125 ml white wine
- 700g tomato passatta
- 500g potatoes, peeled
- 120g butter
- 125g plain flour
- 2 bay leaves
- 4-5 whole peppercorns
- 1 litre milk
- Freshly grated nutmeg
Trim the tops off the aubergines, then slice them lengthways into 5mm slices. Sprinkle salt generously over the slices and leave them in a bowl for about 30 minutes to draw out the bitter juices.
Fry the pork and beef mince in a large frying pan until browned and then pour off the excess fat. Put to one side. In a separate large thick-bottomed saucepan, heat a big glug of extra virgin olive and saute the onions until softened and lightly golden. Add the garlic and the roughly chopped parsley and cook for another minute or so.
Add the browned mince to the onions and give it a good stir. Add the cinnamon, oregano and bay leaf and season well with salt and pepper. Pour in the wine and mix well, scraping around the bottom to get all the flavours combined. Cook for a minute or so until most of the wine is evaporated and then add the passatta. Leave it to simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or so, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile put your milk in a saucepan with a couple of bay leaves and 4 or 5 whole peppercorns. Bring to the boil and them immediately remove from the heat and leave to infuse for 30 minutes whilst you are preparing your potatoes and aubergines.
Slice the potatoes lengthways into 5mm slices and pat them dry. Heat 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a large non-stick saucepan and fry the potatoes in batches over a medium heat until they are golden on both sides and cooked through. Remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the oil and sprinkle with a little salt.
Rinse the salt from the aubergine with cold water and then pat dry with kitchen paper. Using the same oil as the potatoes, fry the aubergine slices in batches – they will absorb more of the oil than the potatoes, so you may need to add a tablespoon more of oil between batches. When the underside is golden, turn over and prick with a fork a few times as this will help the aubergine slices cook quickly and continue to fry until the golden and very soft. Again, remove the slices to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb some of the oil.
Once you have your potato and aubergine slices ready and your mince sauce has reduced and thickened, you’re ready to start layering your moussaka. But first, put your milk back on a low heat to gently warm it again.
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Arrange half the aubergine over the base of your oven dish (a standard lasagne dish will do). Then add the potatoes in a single layer, if possible. Then spoon over half the mince before adding another layer of aubergine slices. Lastly add the final layer of mince and press down firmly with the back of your spoon. You should still have an inch of space at the top of the dish.
Now it’s time to make the bechamel sauce. Firstly, strain the milk through a sieve into a jug to get rid of the bay leaves and peppercorns. Then melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly. Now begin adding the warm milk, whisking in a little bit at a time. You must keep whisking continually! When the sauce is smooth but still thick (though not stiff), add salt, pepper and a little grating of nutmeg and continue to cook for another few minutes (again mixing all the time). The finished sauce should be thick and smooth.
Spoon the béchamel sauce over the mince (it should come almost to the very lip of the dish). Then bake for around 45 minutes or so until the moussaka begins to bubble and the top is golden in parts. Switch off the oven and leave the moussaka in there as the oven cools, so the bechamel sets slightly before serving. This is important – I was a little impatient (by 9.20pm) and the top of my moussaka wasn’t as set as it should be. We had the leftovers the next night and the top was much more solid, which is how it should be! Cut into squares and serve!
Now, if you’ve actually had the courage (and the stamina) to go through all of that, you will rewarded with a beautiful and delicious moussaka. Now tell me that isn’t better than anything you can order in a restaurant!!