julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

Moussaka to Me

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“For dinner, I had originally planned to use leftover lamb to make moussaka.  Then I looked at the moussaka recipe in more detail.  Turns out moussaka is a pain in the ass.  There was a time when I would have jumped right in – started cooking moussaka at nine o’clock at night, sleep be damned.  I’m getting old, I guess, I know my limits.  It’s a little sad.” – Julie Powell

Friday night I unwittingly took on an epic adventure of marathan proportions – I made Julia Child’s Wild Rice and Moussaka (“Ewww, moose caca??”….”My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, anyone?). Moussaka (lamb and eggplant mold) is a Greek dish, sort of like a lamb meat and vegetable casserole wrapped in eggplant skins. The presentation is beautiful, but I’m here to tell you…the preparation for this meal, for some reason, took several hours. Ye godz.

Minced mushrooms for Moussaka. That's a lot of M's.

First things first, I sliced a couple of large eggplants in half lengthwise, sprinkled them with salt and let them dry face-down on paper towels to draw out their excess moisture. When dry, I rubbed them with olive oil and set them face-up in a roasting pan, filling the bottom with 1/2 inch of boiling water. I baked them at 400 degrees for about 25 minutes until they were tender. In the meantime, I browned some ground lamb meat and, in a separate pan, cooked minced onions in olive oil for about 15 minutes until they were tender, and I scraped them into a mixing bowl.

I promise...it smells better than it looks.

I sauteed minced mushrooms in olive oil until they were tender, then added them to the mixing bowl as well. I took the baked eggplants out of the oven and removed the flesh from the skins (Helpful Hint: Julia says to scoop them out with a spoon, but I found this nearly impossible. Instead, cut around the edge of the flesh with a sharp knife, then starting at the stem-end of the eggplant, peel the skin back. It will come away from the flesh pretty easily, and you won’t run the risk of damaging the skin with the spoon.)

I chopped half of the eggplant meat and tossed it into the mixing bowl. I sliced the rest and browned it lightly in a pan on the stove, setting it aside for later. Next, I oiled my cylindrical mold and arranged the eggplant skins, purple side out, so the pointed ends met in the middle of the bottom of the dish and the tops hung over the sides, in the shape of a cross.

The meat mixture is layered into the eggplant skins, which are then folded around the meat to cover it for cooking.

In the mixing bowl, I added the ground lamb, seasonings, herbs, beef stock, tomato paste and eggs. I stirred everything together until it was well blended, then spread an inch of the mixture along the bottom of the mold. Next, I spread a layer of the sauteed eggplant, then repeated the layers until I ended with a layer of the meat mixture. I folded the top ends of the eggplant skins over the meat and covered the dish with aluminum foil. The dish then went into a pan of boiling water, and the whole thing went into a 375 degree oven for about an hour.

I love the colors of the veggies in the rice.

While the Moussaka was cooking, I made a batch of the tomato puree from the omelette dish the other night and brought it to a simmer. Meanwhile, I prepared the Wild Rice. While a box of wild rice was boiling on the stove, I cooked minced carrots, onions and celery in butter in a casserole dish until tender. I drained the rice and added it to the casserole dish, stirring it for a few minutes to let the flavors come together. I added beef stock, herbs and seasonings, brought everything to a boil, and set the covered casserole in the oven along with the Moussaka. After about 25 minutes, I took it out, gave it a fluff with a fork and it was ready to serve.

I love this stuff!

When the Moussaka was done, I removed it from the oven and noticed that for some reason, there was a bit of excess liquid in the mold. I decided to carefully drain the dish over the sink, then inverted the dish onto a serving plate. The Moussaka looked impressive. The eggplant skins looked like large purple flower petals, hiding the meat casserole mixture inside. I used a large spoon to serve a helping of the dish onto a plate, then spooned some of the tomato sauce on top. I added a spoonful of the wild rice to the plate, and was ready to give this Moose Caca a try. (Thanks a lot, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.)

The meat mixture is hidden beneath the eggplant skins.

The meal tasted almost as good as it looked. It needed more seasoning than I had used during the cooking process, but that was an easy fix. The lamb meat tasted just like beef to me, and the vegetables gave a nice contrast to the meat texture. I felt like something was missing – like the rice should have been cooked inside the dish, or some kind of binding ingredient should have been used to make the meat mixture more like an actual filling. I think this would have made a great tomato-based stew/soup. The tomato sauce on top really added a lot to the dish, and I was glad to have the added tomato flavor. The meal wasn’t bad – it was just okay. The eggplant skins were nice and tender, but even so, I pushed them to the side of my plate so I could focus on the meat.

Ta-daa!

The wild rice was pretty good! I had never added vegetables to rice like this, and they really gave it some nice flavor. The beef stock also gave the rice a kick, and it was a great side to pair with the lamb.

I think part of my problem was that the meal took so long to prepare, I really wanted it to be outstanding – and for the amount of work that went into it, it just wasn’t. I’d like to try some authentic Moussaka sometime so I can see how the Greeks actually make it. I bet their version really is outstanding. Considering that Julia’s recipe turned out very similar to other meat casseroles I’ve made in the past, I’d rather just stick to my own recipes that use less ingredients and don’t take nearly as long to prepare.

Final decision? Sorry, Julia. This recipe was Greek to me.

Tomorrow’s another day!
– Jessica

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