We have been painting the house.
So it was likely that in the evening we were simply too tired to think of what to cook, let alone to cook.
So we did a lot of takeout, but then we were so tired that even putting plates and forks inside the dishwasher was too much work.
And so we also happened to eat out more often than normal. We chose casual, friendly places, preferably just a short drive from home.
One night last week, the choice fell on Helen in the Heights, the recently opened (last April) spinoff of the celebrated greek restaurant that was on top of everybody’s list in 2016.
Maybe it was just a bad night for the restaurant, but we were thoroughly disappointed with half of what we ordered, and in particular, with the two cornerstones of greek cuisine.
The tzatziki was no tzatziki, as it did not contain a gram of garlic or cucumber, and tasted like a dill & sour creme sauce that would do good on some salmon.
The moussaka was worse: even though it contained all the correct ingredients, it could not do good in any context. It was simply one of the worst things that has ever been served to me in a restaurant.
There’s not much intellectual labour involved in painting the walls, and the mind is free to wander, but somehow mine was trapped into that awful moussaka: I could not think of anything else.
Moussaka needed to be avenged, and I would be its champion.
I remembered that a friend of mine makes a terrific one, so I asked her recipe. As she lives 7 time zones ahead of me, I also had 7 hours to do some research on the internet.
It struck me that after all, nearly everybody agrees on moussaka: it is a baked casserole of fried eggplant and minced lamb, covered by a layer of béchamel sauce and sprinkled with cheese.
It is agreed that a little tomato goes into the mince meat, but not too much. There is also uniform consensus on the spices that must be used.
To give it additional support, it is allowed to put a layer of pan-fried potatoes underneath.
Amidst all this harmony, what really ignites fierce debate is the béchamel layer.
It looks like it’s been added in the 1920’s by chef and cookbook author Nikolaos Tselementes, a Greek chef who trained in Europe and who wrote what is considered the first comprehensive cookbook in modern Greek, to the point that the word “tselementes” is still used today to mean cookbook.
When Greece regained its independence after centuries under the Ottoman empire, wealthy Greek families returned to Athens from self-imposed exiles in cosmopolitan cities all over Europe. They brought the latest food trends with them, and in those days, the latest food trends were French.
Some critics say that trying to conform Greek cooking to French cooking, Tselementes not only changed Greek cooking, he destroyed it. Because traditional Greek cooking is just taking an ingredient and doing the least possible to it, while French cooking is exactly the opposite.
I don’t know: in Greece I had a lot of delicious and uncomplicated food, often served without paying any attention whatsoever to presentation… it seems to me that the principles of Greek cuisine are alive and well!
I think that however it got into moussaka, béchamel stuck with it because it protects the upper layer of eggplants from drying during the baking.
3 lbs eggplants
3 potatoes (I used Yukon gold)
1 lb ground lamb
1 lb ground beef
1 large onion
1/2 can tomato (I use this)
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 quart béchamel sauce
grated kefalotiri (or any other cheese, preferably sheep, aged at least 3 months)
1) slice the eggplants, not too thinly (go for 1/4 in) and layer them in a colander, sprinkle them with salt and leave them for 1 or 2 hours, covered with some weight, so that they release excess water.
2) Dice the onion and put it inside a large pan with 3 Tbsp of olive oil. When the onion is soft, add minced meat and break lumps with a wooden spoon. When the meat is cooked (i.e. when you don’t see any more pink), add the wine and, after the wine has evaporated, the tomato sauce and the cloves. When the mince meat has thickened, season with salt and pepper and add the cinnamon.
3) If you’re doing the béchamel: melt 4 Tbsp of butter in a small pot and sift 50 gr flour, whisking until the mix turn a beautiful noisette colour (roux), then add 1/2 quart of warm milk. Whisk for at least 15 minutes, and until the sauce has thickened. Add a generous pinch of salt and a little grated nutmeg.
4) Peel the potatoes and thinly slice them. Fry the potatoes and arrange them to cover the bottom of a baking dish.
5) Squeeze the eggplant slices and fry them.
6) Preheat the oven to 390F.
7) Assemble the casserole: arrange a layer of eggplants on top of the potatoes, then sprinkle with a little grated cheese. Spread the mince meat evenly over the eggplants, and cover with another layer of eggplants. Sprinkle with grated kefalotiri. Cover with the béchamel sauce and finish with the remaining kefalotiri.
8) Bake for 30 mins. Let it rest for 15 mins then enjoy!