Classic Greek Moussaka is one of the most popular Greek dishes, and a staple “comfort food” and main course meal in Greece (as Lasagna is in Italy). This tasty Greek dish is a culinary delight to those who sample it for the first time, and I experienced it when I went on a trip to the Greek Islands a few years ago for my birthday.
Some friends and I were in Santorini, a beautiful island in Greece in the Aegean Sea with pastel colors and gorgeous views, eating at a restaurant in Oia called Pelekanos, nestled up in the hills overlooking the sea.
The sun was setting, the relaxing music was playing softly in the background and the atmosphere was just perfect. The waiters graciously came over and attended to our every need, and made our dinner a spectacular night with their attention to detail not only in the food and wine, but our dining experience overall.
The table was elegantly set, with fine china, white tablecloths, crystal glasses and silverware with beautiful flowers as a centerpiece. The waiters filled our glasses with water and wine, lit the candles on the table and gave us recommendations of the specials and enlightened us on some of their popular Greek dishes on the menu.
As we joyously dined, they quickly cleared our plates when we were finished eating, filled our glasses when they were half full, and stood by the table a few feet away with a watchful, attentive eye, to let us know they were on stand by for service, but just far enough away to not be obtrusive on our dining experience.
They always had a smile on their faces and let us stay at the table long enough to enjoy our dinner, engage in great conversation, take photos of our food and engage in the gorgeous bright red sunset that was going down over the ocean as we sat and viewed it in awe. I felt like I was sitting in a little piece of heaven up there and never wanted to leave.
One of the most delicious dishes I ever tasted was the Moussaka, which I ordered that night. It was a perfect mixture of spicy meat at the bottom, layered with potatoes and tender eggplant, and tons of béchamel and gooey cheese on top. The vegetables were steaming as I dug into this gorgeous meat and vegetable pie – my mouth watered at the sight and smell of it. I became so obsessed with this luscious Greek dish that I decided I needed to make it for my big Greek birthday party when I got home from vacation.
Moussaka can be made in many variations, but the classic recipe uses layers of eggplant, potatoes, a spicy meat and tomato sauce with a touch of cinnamon and a rich and delicious béchamel sauce and bubbly kefalotyri cheese on top. Other variations are Moussaka with zucchini or artichokes instead of eggplant, ground lamb instead of ground beef, or vegetarian-style with zucchini, eggplant and potatoes without the meat. Either way you make it, with its warm and rich flavors and gooey cheese you’ll be hooked.
I made this recipe with zucchini and potatoes, and combined ground lamb with ground beef together. The combination of all the spices from the meat and seasonings soak into the vegetables and once you layer some creamy béchamel and gooey cheese on top, you’ve got yourself a delicious heartwarming dish. Be careful to pat dry the vegetables though before layering in the baking dish, as you don’t want the liquids to make the Moussaka too watery as they are cooked down in the oven.
You’ll need a lot of time and kitchen space to make this dish, and if you’re cooking for a crowd, you’ll be safe to double the recipe and make two large rectangular baking dishes of it, as it won’t last long. The flavors in this dish really improve if you make it a day ahead. It’s also a very filling dish, so you may want to serve it as the main course, and accompany it with a Greek Salad, some Stuffed Grape Leaves and Tzaziki for a light side dish along with some Garlic Lemon Hummus and grilled pita. Serve with a red Greek wine and a shot of Ouzo as an aperitif.
- Zucchini/Eggplant Potato Mixture:
- 1/2 cup Greek olive oil
- 3 large zucchini (or eggplants), sliced
- 3 large potatoes, sliced
- Meat Sauce:
- 3 onions, chopped fine
- 4 cloves or garlic, minced
- 1 pound ground lamb or beef
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/2 cup red Greek wine
- 1 (28 ounce) can of tomato puree
- 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 2 tablespoons fresh oregano (or 1 tablespoon dried)
- Kosher salt
- Fresh ground black pepper
- Bechamel Sauce:
- 1/4 pound butter
- 6 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 1 quart of whole milk
- 4 eggs; beaten until frothy
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- Zest from 1 lemon
- 2 cups ricotta cheese
- 1 cup fine bread crumbs
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Zucchini/Eggplant Potato Mixture:
- Cut the zucchini/eggplant and potatoes into slices about 1/2 inch thick. If using eggplant instead of zucchini, peel the eggplant first. Brown the vegetables quickly in 1/4 cup of the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes until lightly golden brown, transfer to paper towels to drain and set aside.
- Meat Sauce:
- Heat the remaining ¼ cup of oil in the same skillet and cook the onions until they are?golden brown. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the ground meat, tomato paste, cinnamon, cayenne, and cook for another 8-10 minutes. Pour off excess fat through a strainer and return meat mixture to the pan. Then add the wine, cooking until almost completely evaporated, about 5 minutes.
- Add the tomato puree to the meat mixture and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium low and simmer over low heat;?stirring frequently, until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 30 minutes. Stir in the parsley and oregano and season with salt and pepper. Remove the?mixture from heat.
- Make the Bechamel Sauce:
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F and heat a medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Make the white sauce by melting the butter?and blending in the flour, stirring with a wire whisk until smooth. Meanwhile, bring the milk to a boil and add it gradually to the butter-flour mixture,? stirring constantly. When the mixture is thickened and smooth, remove ?it from the heat. Cook slightly and stir in the beaten eggs, nutmeg, lemon zest and ricotta.
- Assemble the casserole:
- Grease an 11x16-inch baking dish or casserole dish and sprinkle the bottom lightly with?breadcrumbs.
- Arrange alternate layers of the zucchini/eggplant and potatoes and meat sauce?in the pan, sprinkling each layer with Parmesan cheese and bread crumbs.
- Pour the bechamel sauce over the top and sprinkle some additional Parmesan cheese on top. Bake 1 hour, or until top is golden.
- Remove from the oven and cool 20 to 30 minutes before serving.
- Top with additional chopped fresh parsley. Cut into squares and serve.
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