Autumn Moussaka

While I have fallen completely in love with cooking Pakistani and North Indian food, I’ve also long had an interest of traveling a little further up the spice route to explore Middle Eastern and North African cuisines. I love the warm spices, the delicate sweetness of fruit and rosewater, the sweet and savory snacks on the tea table. I’ve dabbled a little bit (come on, I make my own hummus, please) but I want to learn more, which is why I’m very excited about my first month cooking with the MENA Cooking Club.

Each month is a different country, and everyone cooks one of the recipes the host for that country has chosen. This month is Egypt, hosted by Amira from Arabian Mama. I chose her suggestion, the classic Egyptian Moussaka (Messa’aa).

In future months I plan to stick almost completely to the particular recipe so I can really learn to cook authentically, but as it’s October and I’m in the middle of a Halloween cooking frenzy, I have a driving compulsion to throw things like pumpkin and hazelnuts into almost everything I make. I didn’t veer very far off course though (this is based on Kitchen Nani’s Egyptian Moussaka), I simply replaced the pine nuts and almonds with toasted hazelnuts, omitted the peppers, and instead of making a béchamel I included layers of pumpkin ricotta for the creamy factor.

This was delicious; warm and savory. My little 16 month old gobbled up three servings the other night. It has several components, but they’re all easy to make (especially since I can make lasagne with my eyes closed), and leftovers are fantastic: happy desk lunch.

Autumn Moussaka

Adapted from Kichen Nani

For the eggplant

  • 2 large eggplants, cut into 1.5 inch slices
  • olive oil & sea salt

Assemble slices on a single layer on two baking sheets, lightly coat with olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Roast at 425°, flipping once (and checking everyone once in awhile that they aren’t burning), until golden brown and just a little charred – about 15 minutes each side.

For the sauce

  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
  • 2 6oz cans tomato paste
  • salt & pepper
  • 2 sprigs thyme

Heat olive oil over medium heat (I used a non-stick wok which I think worked well, you’ll end up cooking the tomato paste quite a bit and not have to worry about it sticking) and sauté garlic for a few minutes, then add coriander seeds and sauté for a minute. Add tomato paste, a good pinch of salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until it is a very deep, almost burnt looking red. Add two cups of water plus the thyme and mix well (I used a whisk to break up all the tomato paste). Simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes, then set aside. Check seasoning, may need more salt.

For the meat mixture

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • salt & pepper
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1.5 tbsp Arabic 7 spice (which I actually had because I had made for another recipe, yay!) or a mixture of cumin, coriander, paprika, cloves and cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp raisins or currants

Heat olive oil over medium hight heat and sauté onion with salt and pepper until translucent, then add garlic and sauté another couple of minutes. Slide onions to the side and crank the heat up to high, and brown the ground beef with another good sprinkle of salt. Add spices and stir for a few minutes, until meat is well cooked through, then remove from heat and stir in raisins or currants.

For the moussaka

  • 15 oz ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup pumpkin or butternut squash puree
  • salt & pepper
  • olive oil
  • 1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (I crushed them with the back of my knife then chopped them)
  • eggplant (above)
  • sauce (above)
  • meat mixture (above)

Combine ricotta, pumpkin, salt and pepper to taste and mix well with a spatula. I also went ahead and mixed the sauce and the meat together, although you could layer separately.

In a casserole dish (I lightly greased it with olive oil, probably not necessary but I would hate to spend all this effort then burn my eggplants to the bottom), layer half the eggplants, then spread half the meat/sauce mixture, sprinkle half the hazelnuts, and spread half the ricotta/pumpkin mixture (a spatula works well). Repeat with the other half of the ingredients. Reheat the whole thing in a 375° oven.

Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika and allow to set for a few minutes before serving.