As a child of six years and little courage, I had limited tolerance for bitter, sour or slimy vegetables. Most vegetables, in fact, other than super sweet baby carrots, green peas and cheesy mashed potatoes. In particular, I held animosity towards aubergines, the large purple eggs known sensibly as ‘eggplant’ in American English. My childish eyes viewed them as the blight of the vegetable world, with their thick, bitter skins, sponge-like interiors and lines of acerbic crunchy seeds.
Unfortunately for me, my mother held an entirely different view on this member of the nightshade family. She loved them, both for culinary and nutritional reasons, and cooked them regularly in our family dinner rotation. Her default dish was ratatouille made with fragrant basil, olive oil, crushed garlic and Italian tomatoes, simmered for an hour in a cast iron pan. Sometimes I’d excitedly mistake the bubbling mixture for my favourite dish, Bolognese. I was sorely disappointed when chunks of aubergine appeared, traumatically infiltrating my spaghetti or steamed rice.
During each aubergine dinner, I’d approach the table with pleading eyes, tired words and a bubbling stomach. My mother would smile patiently across the table, watching my gaze flicker between the fresh pasta, rich sauce and steaming chunks of aubergine mush. “Just two bites”, she would say, gradually demolishing her own plate of ratatouille. I would grimace silently in protest, aggressively poking my aubergine with a fork until it disintegrated.
After what seemed like hours, my juvenile deprecation waned. I would relent, scooping two bites into my mouth before joyously leaving the dinner table to play. But with time, those two bites became an entire meal, then ‘seconds’, then ‘…just a bit more’. My mother’s assiduous determination transformed my hatred of aubergines into an unyielding love that endures in my own family kitchen. For this reason amongst others, I will forever be in her debt.
Over the past two years, I’ve become particularly fond of Middle Eastern ways to eat aubergines, such as smooth, smoky baba ghanouj, spicy mutabbal and grilled stuffed eggplants with lamb, yoghurt and fragrant za’atar. However, within this post you will find my first ever ‘favourite’ aubergine dish, Greek moussaka or layered aubergine bake. With layers of soft potatoes, seasoned mince, crumbed aubergine and creamy béchamel, this dish is rich, warm and filling, perfect for cold nights and ravenous appetites.
I’d suggest eating this dish in small, thick wedges with a pile of fresh greens, lemony grilled artichokes and some hot, buttered Greek bread (such as the delicious hard-crusted psomi). It’s a fine use of aubergines that’s sure to win over the harshest of critics.
Potato and Aubergine Moussaka
Allow 2 hours preparation + 45-60 minutes cooking
- 4 large aubergines (eggplant), approx 1.2kg
- 500g waxy/low starch potatoes (eg. Nadine, Bintje, Nicola or Kipfler)
- 1 kg ground lamb mince
- 2 large onions, finely diced
- 5 cloves garlic, minced finely
- 1/2 cup good quality red wine
- 1/4 cup Italian parsley, chopped
- 1 tbsp thyme, leaves picked
- 1 tbsp finely grated lemon zest
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp ground allspice
- 400g can crushed Roma tomatoes
- 3 tbsp tomato paste
- 1-2 tsp brown sugar, to taste
- 1/4 cup sea salt flakes, for salting the eggplant (+ extra, to taste)
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 cups panko breadcrumbs
- 8 egg whites, lightly beaten (reserve yolks for béchamel, below)
- 1 1/2 cups finely grated kefalograviera cheese (substitute Parmesan or Romano)
- béchamel sauce, recipe to follow
With a small paring knife, remove 1-inch-wide strips of aubergine peel from the green stem to the tail end. Slice the aubergines into 1cm thick rounds. Place your prepared slices into a colander or bowl, then salt them liberally. Cover them with an inverted plate to weigh down the slices, then set aside for 1 hour (this process, known as ‘degorging’, draws the excess moisture and bitterness out of the aubergines).
Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and boil them whole in a pot of salted water. Cook until just tender (a knife should slide through with only slight resistance). Drain, cool, then slice each potato into 0.5cm thick slices. Set aside.
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees C (390 degrees f). Line two baking trays with aluminium foil, then grease them with a light spray of olive oil. Place the egg whites and a splash of ice water in a small bowl. Beat lightly with a fork, then set aside for coating your aubergine slices.
Rinse your pressed slices of aubergine to remove some of the salt, then pat them dry with a clean paper towel. Tip the panko breadcrumbs onto a flat plate, then place them alongside your pile of aubergine slices and the beaten egg whites.
Working quickly, dip each slice of aubergine into the egg wash, then the panko breadcrumbs. Press down to coat each side adequately. Place the slice of crumbed eggplant onto a prepared tray, then repeat the process with the rest of the aubergine, egg wash and breadcrumbs.
Bake the aubergine slices at 200 degrees C (390 degrees f) for 30-40 minutes, turning them once during cooking. When the aubergine is firm but tender and the breadcrumbs are golden, remove the trays from the oven and allow them to cool slightly.
Whilst your aubergine is roasting, prepare your seasoned mince. Place a large, heavy-based pan over medium heat. Brown the lamb mince in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, then add in the onion, garlic and spices. Cook for about 1 minute, or the onion is translucent and the mixture is fragrant.
Add in the wine, tomato paste, parsley, thyme, crushed tomatoes and a sprinkle of sugar. Season to taste.
Allow the mixture to simmer, uncovered, for approximately 20 minutes. When reduced sufficiently (the mixture needs to be reasonably thick and dry so that the finished moussaka won’t be waterlogged), stir through the lemon zest, then set aside to cool slightly before assembling the layers.
It should look like this:
To assemble: lightly grease a large, 6-8 cup capacity lasagne pan or baking dish (mine appears smaller as I made two separate trays of moussaka).
Leaving a 1cm space around the edges of the pan, place a single, flat layer of potatoes on the base. Top with a layer of aubergine slices, then 1/2 the seasoned mince. Sprinkle with one third of the cheese. Add another layer of aubergine slices, then top with half of the béchamel sauce (see recipe to follow; ensure that the béchamel fills the sides and corners of the pan). Repeat the above layers (potato, aubergine, mince, cheese, aubergine), then top with a final layer of béchamel and grated cheese.
Bake in a 180 degrees C (350 degrees f) oven for 45-60 minutes or until the béchamel is golden and the cheese is bubbling. Allow to cool for 15 – 20 minutes before slicing to serve.
- 225g salted butter
- 1 cup (150g) flour
- 4 cups milk, warmed
- 8 egg yolks, lightly beaten
- Pinch of ground nutmeg
In a small pan, melt the butter over low heat. Gradually add the flour to the melted butter, whisking continuously to make a smooth paste. Allow the flour to cook for a minute (do not allow it to brown). It should look like this:
Add the warmed milk in a steady stream. Whisk continuously to combine, then simmer the mixture, stirring consistently, until it thickens slightly. Remove from the heat, then add in the egg yolks and nutmeg. Return over low heat, whisking continuously until the mixture thickens.
Use as specified above to assemble the moussaka.
*This dish was eaten very late in the evening with a throw-together salad and a glass of Stella Bella’s Suckfizzle 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon. Hungry stomachs led to fleeting photographs taken with poor overhead lighting. As there were negligible leftovers (and the dish took three+ hours to make) I’ll leave the proper photoshoot to your imagination. Until next time.
- Kefalograviera is a hard, salty Greek cheese made from sheep or goats milk. It is available from some supermarkets and specialty delicatessens, however Parmesan and Romano are fine substitutes.
- This dish can be assembled, covered and refrigerated for 1-2 days before cooking. Return to room temperature prior to baking (alternately, cover with foil for 30 minutes if baking directly from the refrigerator. Add an extra 15 minutes onto the cooking time).