How I learnt not to fear moussaka

I used to be afraid of moussaka. Not the dish itself, which I really enjoyed, but the idea of cooking it. To begin with, it was ‘foreign’ cookery and I didn’t have all the ingredients and methods handily translated into English (let alone the temperatures, quantities, etc.) and then there was the fact that my husband visited Greece numerous times as a teenager and considered himself an expert whereas I had only ever come across moussaka in restaurants. It seemed to be quite wildly complicated.

Nowadays, with the internet as my guide, things are much easier and I recently learnt how very very easy it is to produce moussaka that, if not totally authentic, tastes good and doesn’t even take that long to make. Or at least, it’s made in stages which can be quite far apart meaning you don’t need to spend all morning or afternoon in the kitchen, so it doesn’t feel as if you’ve taken long.

Start with mince. Any mince will do even though lamb is traditional. Vegetarians can substitute whatever ‘fake’ mince they use. Fry it with onions and tomato puree. If you have some left over from e.g. spaghetti bolognese that’s fine, too even if it has more additives such as peppers or mushrooms but don’t have too much liquid around. Make sure garlic is involved. Then add a generous pinch of cinnamon, a herb such as basil, oregano or coriander and some mint. I tend to use a teaspoon of mint sauce (home made or shop bought). Add a couple of bay leaves. Stir in a spoonful of plain flour to thicken – it should be a lot more solid than what you would want for e.g. bolognese. Set the mixture aside. Set it aside for an entire day if you like (in the fridge, of course).

Now slice an aubergine fairly thinly. Salt it and put it in a colander over a bowl or plate. Leave it for at least half an hour; longer is better. You can do anything else – even non-kitchen tasks – while you wait because vegetables are not known for trying to run away.

Make a cheese sauce. Use whatever method suits you – by the time it’s all finished nobody will know whether you made a tradition roux or got a jar of white sauce granules as your base. I’ve done both and I promise this is true. Let it cool (as with the aubergine, you can wander away) then once it’s cool add a beaten egg and some grated nutmeg, mixing them in thoroughly. I tend to make the sauce and slice the aubergine in the same session but you don’t have to.

Drain and rinse the aubergine then put it in the base of a casserole dish (i.e one that will go in a hot oven) and at this point if you have any pre-cooked potato slices lingering in the fridge you can add those too. Some Greek cooks do and some don’t.

Spoon the mince mixture on top of the aubergine.

Pour or spoon the cheese/egg sauce and make sure it covers the other ingredients. Then sprinkle more cheese on top – grated parmesan is good and again, you can use a convenience type.

Put it in a medium hot oven for about forty minutes. You can go away again at this point.

The recipes mostly suggest leaving it to cool a little before serving, to help set the mixture and keep the layers nicely separated. Whoever gets a portion with a bay leaf in it is welcome to discard the leaf and just enjoy the flavour. If you didn’t add potato you might want to serve some separately or perhaps provide some crusty bread.

If you have any left over (we don’t) I’m sure it would keep well in the fridge. I haven’t given quantities because all families (and appetites) differ but as a rough guide I use one aubergine, and the quantity of cheese sauce I’d use for cauliflower cheese. That, with some mince, makes enough for two greedy people.

Easy and tasty. Greek? Maybe not, but a lot of recipes travel round the world and don’t take any harm by being tweaked here and there. This can clearly be tweaked for vegetarians and possibly for vegans, but can’t be made kosher unless there’s a non-milk sauce option. I assume you could use one of the plant-based milks but I have no real idea how they work in recipes.

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