25 February 2013

Lamb & Eggplant (Aubergine) Moussaka

I have been wanting to do a series of eggplant (aubergine) posts for a while now as there is something so appealing about the glossy purple black form of the globe eggplant that I am drawn to them whenever I see them. It must be something deeply seeded in my brain as growing up we always had an eggplant growing soft in the back of the fridge as my mum too could not go past them without acquiring one. As it happens, this week when I decided it was finally eggplant week - could I find all the different varieties of eggplant I wanted? No, of course not. I did get some lovely glossy globe eggplants though and am holding out hope that there will suddenly be an influx of different eggplant varieties at my local fruit and veggie store by the end of the week...

When I canvassed my friends on what they thought of as quintessential eggplant dishes moussaka came up every time. I very rarely order Moussaka out as I have had too many disappointingly bland huge portions topped with gelatinous béchamel that do not do justice to eggplants, or cooking in general for that matter. I also very rarely make moussaka as it is a dish that is not for a 'quick' dinner as each component is made separately then layered together and cooked further. That said, you can make most of the components the night before then just assemble and bake... this recipe is rich and flavourful, perfect with a zesty salad and glass of wine. 

In stark contrast to the thin dark skin of the eggplant sits the fleshy spongy interior, which when cooked properly turns into a divine silky pulp that melts in the mouth. Unfortunately, if not cooked properly they have a tough texture, akin to a dead sea sponge, that detracts from whatever delicious ingredients it is paired with. They are also ridiculously porous creatures and will suck up as much oil as you care to give them, which conversely will seep out of them into your final greasy dish.
Most cooks will advise to slice and salt eggplants and let them sit before cooking, this softens the eggplant and draws a lot of the moisture out which is said to reduce the amount of oil the eggplant will absorb while cooking. It is also meant to remove the bitterness from the numerous seeds. I was talking to a friend last week who lives in Italy about the salting of eggplants and she said that she had been told it was unnecessary as most cultivars you find in shops aren't as bitter as those early eggplants on whom this method originated. I have still salted my eggplants as it's what I have always done but I would be interested to know if people do or don't salt and what the results are??? 
For my moussaka recipe I wanted to make the eggplants really stand out as distinct layers so I have borrowed features from Ottolenghi's amazing marinated eggplants for the eggplant layers, which really suits making the components the night before as it allows the garlic and fresh oregano flavours to really infuse into the eggplants.
Moussaka is not a quick dish to prepare, so make sure you allow plenty of time or you will get stressed and not cook the eggplant long enough. I find it easier to start the day before and prepare the eggplant and the lamb and refrigerate these overnight. Then on the day I make the béchamel  sauce and construct the layers in a 22.5cm spring form baking pan (with a tray underneath to catch the dribbles that will come out, otherwise your oven will be a mess) then bake for 45 mins at 180˚C.
Eggplant layers (made day before):
  • 3 medium globe eggplants
  • salt
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • sea salt and black pepper
Lamb layers (made day before):
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 brown onions, finely chopped
  • 500 grams lamb mince
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 heaped teaspoons dried oregano
  • good pinch whole cumin seeds
  • 400 gram tin of Italian tomatoes
  • 400 mls tomato passatta (or fresh tomatoes, skinned and pureed)
  • 150 mls red wine
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 2 bay leaves
  • good pinch sea salt
Béchamel  sauce (made on the day):
  • 500 mls milk
  • 1/2 brown onion
  • 4 whole cloves
  • bunch fresh sage leaves, bruised
  • 50 g butter
  • 60 g plain flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 60 g fetta or parmesan cheese
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  1. trim the stalk end of the eggplant, then cut into quarters and then 1 cm slices lengthways
  2. salt the slices and let them sit for 20 minutes to sweat, then rinse well and pat dry with paper towel or a clean tea towel
  3. lay out in flat on a roasting tray and lightly brush with oil, cook at 200 C in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes until completely soft
  4. **NB: if you don't get them soft now they will remain tough when you assemble and reheat
  5. once they are golden and soft, remove from oven and put in bowl with garlic, oregano, lemon juice, salt and pepper, cover and allow to marinate overnight in the fridge
  6. brown the finely chopped onions in a large frying pan with a little olive oil (the lamb is quite fatty so don't use much oil), when translucent approximately 5 minutes add the lamb mince and cook, stirring to break up the chunks of mince until brown
  7. add the minced garlic and cook for a further 2 minutes; add the cinnamon, oregano and cumin and cook for another minute, then add all other "lamb layer" ingredients  and cook on medium heat, stirring, until thick and reduced, approximately 20 - 30 minutes. There should be no real liquid left, likewise it shouldn't be dry, just a moist thick sauce
  8. the lamb can then be cooled and refrigerated until the next day
  9. to make the béchamel sauce, warm the milk with the onion, cloves and bruised bunch of sage until almost boiling (don't let it boil), then remove from heat and allow to infuse for 15 minutes or longer, then strain to remove the onion, cloves and sage
  10. in a small saucepan on low heat melt the butter and flour together whisking continuously until it makes an even crumb, add approximately 1/4 cup of the infused milk and whisk to a smooth paste, continue adding a little milk at a time until all is added and it is smooth and thickened
  11. in a separate bowl whisk 2 eggs until fluffy, then add these to the béchamel sauce, along with the cheese and seasonings then whisk until incorporated, set aside
  12. preheat oven to 180 C and line a round 20 cm (8 ") springform pan with baking paper
  13. put a single layer of the marinated eggplant slices on the bottom of the pan, then 1/3 of the meat, repeat with layers of eggplant and meat till it is all used then top with the béchamel sauce
  14. place the springform pan on a roasting dish (some juice will leak out and you don't want it all over the bottom of your oven)
  15. cook for 45 minutes at 180 C, the béchamel should puff slightly and go just golden on top, then remove from the oven and allow to sit for 30 mins or more before you try and remove the outside of the springform tin and cut it (otherwise it won't hold its shape)
  16. serve just warm with a fresh salad and enjoy!


  1. This looks absolutely delicious. Everything I could want on this rainy day.

  2. Thank you, it definitely hit the spot. The rain has just started here too and all I want is to stay at home eating really tasty food!