Thursday, 28 July 2011

Moussaka: loving comfort for summer

We've had some crazy weather this year. Winter was one of the most wintery imaginable and spring was a scorcher. We even had a barbecue on Easter Monday when we spent a wonderful day in the garden. Summer, not surprisingly, has so far been a mixed bag. On some of the more dismal days I've yearned for classic comfort food and we've had casseroles and shepherds pie (and Simon Hopkinson's baked pasta with porcini), but this week I particularly fancied moussaka.

I have very close friends (including a godson) in Athens who I've been thinking about a lot lately and, over the years, they've treated me to some magnificent Greek home cooking. 

As well as amazing seafood and salads, memorable meals have included little pies filled with courgettes and dill and, of course, moussaka. It's the kind of dish the older mothers cook for the younger generation to enjoy after a day at work. As is customary in hot climates, dishes like this are served warmish (even tepid). I find moussaka a bit oily at this temperature and much prefer it hot. Until this week I hadn't realised quite how much work went into this dish – it took me about at two hours of hands-on cooking! In Greece, I'm sure they're much more nifty, but, even so, moussaka is a real labour of love.

I used a recipe from the Leith's Cookery Bible which tasted very similar to moussakas lovingly prepared by Xeni, my godson's grandmother. I doubled the amount of sauce and tweaked the recipe accordingly. 

(serves 4)
olive oil
675g lean lamb, minced
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 tomatoes (I used 3 tablespoons of chopped tinned tomatoes)
150ml dry white wine
150ml pint water
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
a pinch of grated nutmeg
1 medium aubergine
2 large potatoes, peeled
15g dried breadcrumbs
30g butter
30g plain flour
1 bay leaf
600ml milk
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp double cream
110g Cheddar cheese, grated

Heat a little oil in a large saucepan and brown the meat in it. Tip off any excess fat. Put the meat in a bowl. Add the onions and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Return the meat to the pan. If you're using fresh tomatoes, dip them in boiling water for 10 minutes, peel, chop and add to the meat. Or spoon in the tinned tomatoes. Add the wine, water, salt, pepper, parsley and nutmeg and cook over a low heat, stirring often, for 30 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.

Preheat the oven to 170°C/Gas Mark 3. Cut the aubergine into thin slices, salt lightly and leave for about 30 minutes for some of the juice to drain out. Rinse and dry well on a cloth. Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until just tender. Cool and slice.

Heat a little more oil in a frying pan and fry each slice of aubergine on both sides until well browned, but not burnt. Put the aubergine slices in the bottom of a large casserole (or oven-proof dish). Sprinkle on the breadcrumbs. Now tip in half the meat mixture. Put half the sliced potato in next, seasoning with salt and pepper, then the remaining meat, and then the rest of the potato.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the flour, add the bay leaf and then the milk, and stir constantly until it comes to the boil. Season with salt and pepper and leave simmering while you mix the egg yolks and cream in a bowl. 

Pour the sauce on to the egg yolks and cream, stirring all the time. Add half the cheese. Pour the sauce over the casserole. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese over the top.

Cook in the preheated oven for 1 hour, then test with a skewer; the whole mass should be soft. The top should be browned too, but if not, finish off under the grill.

While any number of Greek wines would have been ideal (notably juicy ripe reds from Nemea or their modern, elegant rosés), we didn't have any to hand. However, our bottle of Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Côtes du Rhône Villages 2010 (produced for them by Chapoutier, £6.79) hit the spot perfectly with its supple, ripe, peppery fruit and balanced acidity. 

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