For most people, eating certain foods brings back memories of their childhood. Whether it’s grandma’s Sunday roast, Mom’s famous meatloaf, or Kraft macaroni and cheese, everyone remembers the food of their childhood.
For me, one of my childhood comfort foods was Moussaka. My maternal grandmother was Greek and my mother always made a few classic Greek dishes throughout the year; lamb at Easter, Vasilopita on New Year’s Eve, Kourabiethes and Baklava at Christmas, Spanakopita, and Moussaka the rest of the year.
When I was a very young child, I remember thinking what an odd combination it was- meat and eggplants and creamy white sauce on top. To be honest, I didn’t really dig it. As I got older, however, I looked forward to the rare occasions when my mom made Moussaka and came to appreciate it for the true comfort food that it is.
Moussaka is a layered casserole dish consisting of a meat sauce, traditionally made with beef and/or lamb, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant. Some versions also contain potatoes. It is topped with a creamy Béchamel cheese sauce, in which several types of cheese (depending on your preference) can be used.
In my version, I lighten it up by using ground chicken (lean ground turkey can also be used) and roasting the eggplants instead of frying them in oil. I use margarine (or olive oil) instead of butter and 1% milk to make the Bechamel. For a vegetarian option, you can even sub meat for a can of chickpeas or soy crumbles.
The taste it still rich, hearty, and flavorful without being heavy and greasy. The dish does take a couple hours to prepare from start to finish, but it is well worth the effort. You can even roast the eggplants and make the meat sauce the night before or in morning on the day that you plan to eat it. Then, when you’re ready to prepare the Moussaka, you just need to make the Béchamel sauce, assemble the layered casserole, and pop it into the oven to bake for 40-45 minutes. Done and Done!
I know there are a few steps involved in making Moussaka that might make it seem daunting at first, but believe me, the extra effort needed to put together this dish is well worth it! You will have a warm, comforting, fulfilling meal that you will want to make again and again. And leftover Moussaka is equally delicious for lunch the next day!
Healthy Greek-Style Moussaka with Mushrooms and Ground Chicken
serves 6-8 as main course
Tomato & Mushroom Meat Sauce
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1.5-2 lb. ground chicken or lean turkey (93-94% fat-free)
1 tomato, finely chopped
1 (28-oz.) can crushed tomatoes
2 large eggplant, cut in slices 1⁄4” thick
1 to 1.5 cups mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 medium garlic cloves
1 1⁄2 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. thyme/oregano blend
1⁄2 tsp. nutmeg
1⁄4 tsp. ground cloves
Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
Béchamel Cheese Sauce
4 tbsp. olive oil or margarine (I like “I Can’t Believe it’s Not Butter” spread)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups 1% milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup ground Parmesan cheese
Dash of nutmeg
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F, slice eggplants into thin slices of about the same thicknesses. Line a baking sheet with foil and grease with olive oil or cooking spray. Add eggplant slices to baking sheet and sprinkle with salt and black pepper. Proceed to step 2 while eggplant is roasting. Roast until eggplant is soft and tender, about 30-35 minutes. Remove eggplant and let it cool. Decrease oven temperature to 400°F.
2. Cook onion in olive oil over med-high heat in a large pot on the stove, seasoning with salt and pepper as it cooks. Cook until translucent. Add minced garlic and mushrooms and continue to cook until mushrooms are soft. Add ground chicken and saute until cooked through, adding more salt and pepper as needed.
3. To the same pot, add 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, ½ tsp thyme/oregano blend, 1⁄2 tsp. nutmeg, and 1/4 tsp cloves, and one chopped tomato. Blend in pot for 1 minute. Add can of crushed tomatoes and bring to boil. (Add 1/4 cup water if mixture is too thick.) Simmer on the stove on low-medium heat for about 40-45 minutes.
4. Melt margarine in a sauté pan on the stove on med-high heat. Then add ¼ cup flour and whisk swiftly to produce a smooth mixture. Add milk and continue to whisk, removing any flour lumps, cooking for about ten minutes, or until thickened and smooth. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg and stir. Turn off heat and remove sauté pan from stove, stirring in grated Parmesan cheese. Set sauce aside. Beat two eggs in a small bowl. After sauce has cooled for 5-10 minutes, stir in beaten eggs, and season with a dash of nutmeg.
5. Assemble the Moussaka. Lightly grease a 9”x 13” baking dish and heat oven to 400°F if you haven’t already done so. Line baking dish with a layer of meat sauce, then add a layer of roasted eggplant, laying slices flat. Alternate again with meat sauce, followed by eggplant. Finish with a layer of eggplant and top with additional sprinkling of Parmesan cheese. Spread the béchamel in an even layer over last layer of eggplant and smooth with back of spoon. Bake uncovered in oven until golden with some browned spots, about 40-45 minutes. Slice and enjoy!
*This is my original recipe but has inspiration from: Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food p. 261 and http://www.saveur.com/article/Recipes/Classic-Moussaka?MQ1D0fdfuG7cOiWs.32