I had just pulled my first draft of moussaka, a creamy comforting Greek casserole, out of the oven and set it down on my station in the test kitchen to cool. The smell of roasted lamb, mint, and oregano drew Chris Morocco, fellow senior food editor, over to my station. He described the moussaka of his dreams from a small mom and pop Greek restaurant in his hometown of Newton, MA, called Farm Grill and Rotisserie. They use potatoes, eggplant, and beef (no tomato). When I told him I was using lamb, eggplant and tomatoes, he game me a little side-eye.
But that’s what happens with comfort food from any culture—every person, every town, every grandmother has their own version that they love. The more I researched this dish the more variations I found. Some are more stew-y, some more casserole-y, some use zucchini or potato, while others use beef or chickpeas. It’s all a matter of what country you’re in and what ingredients are more readily available.
For me lamb, eggplant, and tomatoes were a given. Finding the balance between the herbs and spices took a couple of tries. I tried both fresh and dried mint and oregano, and while I like the flavor of the fresh herbs better, you can use either. A cinnamon stick and sweet paprika warms up the dish and gives the tomato a little bite.
I also tried to streamline the process as much as possible. It’s a weekend project, for sure, but even I hate standing in front of a stove frying eggplant. It’s so messy with the oil splattering and I get bored easily, so I decided to borrow a technique I used for these eggplant sabich sandwiches.
You brush eggplant slices with a garlic-herb olive oil and roast them in a very hot oven. And that’s it. You wait. While they’re roasting you can make the lamb sauce. They’re both finished about the same time, then all that’s left to do is make the white sauce and assemble.
The white sauce that goes on top or béchamel is probably my favorite part. A béchamel is a fancy term for cream gravy (you can take the boy out of Texas…) or more specifically, a sauce made from a roux of butter, flour, and milk. But why stop there? I threw in some cheese, well, because cheese. And it gives it more flavor (chef’s note: béchamel becomes a mornay sauce when you add cheese to it). I’m fond of farmer’s cheese, a fresh cow’s milk cheese that’s pretty inexpensive and it amps up the flavor of the milk. I also added pecorino, which is a salty, dry sheep’s milk cheese from Italy. It has a little bit of barnyard funk, which I’m not normally into, but used in small amounts, it can add a lot of depth to a dish. In this case, it amplifies the lamb flavor and pulls the two layers together.
The real test, of course, was if Morocco liked it. I assumed he wasn’t going to even try it because he hates lamb. And it had tomatoes. But to my surprise, not only did he taste it, he even took some home for dinner that night. So if you know someone that hates lamb, this might be the dish that changes their mind.