Thursday, June 19, 2008

Greek Night

What first inspired me to start a blog, is the cooking club I started. I love to cook and have some friends who share my love of food and cooking. So I thought what better way to share this than to start a club were a few friends could get together and try new recipes out on each other. As we cooked and ate that night we talked about how a blog is a great way to share thoughts on the recipes we made at the very least with each other, but also with anyone else who is interested. We also had lofty goals of including pictures of what we made. This post unfortunately won't have any, as we decided this after most of the food was gone!

For our first meeting we decided to tackle Greek cuisine, something I have always loved and wanted to actually try to cook. Each person picked a recipe to make. On the menu was Saganaki, Baba Ghanoush, Spanakopita and Moussaka. All very traditional Greek dishes, but stuff none of us had tried to make before.

I chose to make Moussaka as I had found a wonderful Greek food blog with a moussaka recipe that claimed to be the best. Of course with such lofty claims I had to try it out. Following it the recipe and link to the blog where i pulled it from

Note: this Moussaka recipe is intended to fill two 1400 ml (1.5 quarts) loaf pans, or one medium sized rectangular deep-walled baking pan. I used 2 Pyrex glass loaf pans which explain the double-edged downward narrowing appearance of my Moussaka slice in the photo above. 

1 ½ lbs. regular ground veal 
2 lbs. potatoes (preferably yellow-fleshed) 
2 medium-large eggplants 
2 medium sized white onions, diced 
1 ½ cups of Greek extra-virgin olive oil 
1 ½ tablespoons tomato paste 
1 teaspoon of garlic powder 
½ cup white wine
Salt and pepper to taste 

For the White Sauce (béchamel):
4 cups of cold milk 
1 cup of flour 
¾ cup of butter 
2 eggs 
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg 
Salt, pepper 

1. Peel potatoes and wash eggplants. 
2. Slice off stalk and bottom ends of eggplant, slice useable portions of ends into thin discs. 
3. Thinly slice the eggplants lengthwise. Make sure to cut the slices relatively thin as they will thus absorb less olive oil when fried and result in an overall less oily finished product. [My Moussaka is never oily and this is part of the reason.] 
4. Place eggplant slices in a large mixing bowl filled with salty water and leave to soak for 15 minutes, then remove eggplant from water and leave to dry well on outspread towel(s). The eggplant must be dried well before being fried to avoid hot oil pops and splatters. 
5. Slice potatoes into relatively thin lengthwise slices. 
6. Over a medium heat add a ¼ cup of the olive oil to a large frying pan and proceed to fry the sliced potato discs in batches, laying them out flat in the bottom of the pan, ensuring to turn each over to cook both sides. The potato slices should be fried until slightly soft. When the potato slices are cooked, remove from the hot oil and place them on spread paper towel(s) for them to drain 
7. Once the potatoes are done, using the same frying pan (though you may need to clean it), add a ¼ cup of olive oil and over a medium heat start frying the eggplant slices in batches. You will need to keep adding more olive oil to the pan as you go with each batch of eggplant slices as they do absorb it rapidly. This is where the virtue of thin slices makes itself known… The thinner slices need less time in the pan to soften and they absorb less oil before seeping it back into the pan, thus less oil is required to fry them overall. 
8. As with the potato slices, when the eggplant slices are soft and almost translucent from the oil absorption, remove each batch from the hot oil and place them on spread paper towel(s) for them to drain well. 
9. Once the eggplant slices are cooked, add the remaining olive oil (or about a ¼ cup) to the same frying pan - which likely will not require cleaning this time - and proceed to sauté the diced onion until soft. 
10. Add ground veal to the onions in the frying pan and mix well to break up the meat. Stir meat continuously over a medium-high heat for 10 minutes, making sure to brown all the meat well. 
11. Add wine, garlic powder, salt and pepper to the pan and stir well to mix. 
12. Dilute tomato paste in 1 cup of water and add to pan, and when the mixture boils reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The meat mix needs to simmer long enough to reduce the liquid in the pan and for the meat to drink up the sauce completely, without drying out. 
13. Grease the sides and bottoms of your pan(s) with olive oil and cover the bottom(s) completely with a layer of potato discs; overlap where necessary to ensure as complete a covering as possible though make sure not to use up all the potatoes for the bottom(s) alone; you will probably require a little more than half the potato slices to ensure a complete bottom cover. 
14. Using a spatula, spoon out a little more than half of the meat mixture and spread to cover the bottom potato layer(s) evenly. 
15. Cover meat layer(s) with remaining potato discs as best as possible, then cover this potato layer completely with a layer of eggplant slices, overlapping as necessary to ensure complete coverage, right to the sides of the pan. 
16. Spread remaining meat mixture out evenly to cover the eggplant layer and using the spatula press down on the layers (though not too hard) to compact them in order to ensure sufficient room for the thick layer of white sauce (béchamel) to come. 

How to prepare the white sauce (béchamel): 
1. Melt butter in a medium sized saucepan over a medium-low heat. 
2. When butter is melted, thoroughly incorporate the flour in stages using a whisk and continuously stirring for about 5 minutes. (Note: As this can be an arduous task due to the need for sustained rapid stirring and the thickening of the sauce, I recommend using a wand blender with a whisk attachment for making the white sauce). 
3. Once the flour is fully incorporated, slowly, in a thin but steady stream, add the 4 cups of milk while stirring continuously and turn up the heat slightly to bring the thick sauce to a boil and then remove the saucepan from the heat.
4. Add nutmeg, salt and pepper and mix sauce well. 
5. Beat the eggs and slowly add them to the sauce making sure to combine well. 
6. Pour a thick layer of white sauce into baking pan(s) completely covering the top meat sauce layer. If necessary, spread white sauce evenly with the bottom of a large spoon to ensure a uniform surface. 
7. Place filled baking pan(s) into an oven pre-heated to 350° F. (180° C.) and bake for 40 minutes or until the top is nicely browned. 
8. Let stand to cool for at least 1 hour before cutting into slices and serving. [Personally, I let it cool for several hours before consumption. In point of fact, Moussaka is always better on the following day, as all the flavours have had a chance to coalesce. So, once it has cooled completely, if you refrigerate your Moussaka and then warm it just before serving on the following day, you will get the full benefit of its flavours and textures.]

I followed this recipe almost exactly. The only changes I made were that I halved it to make it a little more manageable and less time consuming, but also substituted ground beef for veal, as people don't eat it and quite frankly the price of veal when I was shopping was through the roof. Other than that everything was written and while it was a time consuming recipe, it was well worth it. The flavors were so rich and savory and everyone seemed to enjoy it. Not the most ideal recipe for the hot summer days ahead but I would definitely recommend it as a nice comforting meal during the cooler months.

As I get the recipes for the other girls' dishes I will post them, but for those who don't know Saganaki is Fried Feta (soooooo tasty!), Baba Ghanoush is an eggplant hummus (our was quite spicy but tasty nonetheless) and Spanakopita is Spinach and Feta pie (even more delicious the next day!)

Overall from my Greek cooking experience I was pleasantly surprised and how few ingredients were needed in each dish, how easily they all came together and richness in the flavors. I am quite proud at the fact that none of us had ever cooked Greek before and pulled off a really delicious meal. I plan on trying more recipes on my own and will definitely pull more from the Greek Gourmand blog.

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