Our last trip to my husband’s homeland was really something that both of us needed.
He needed to be reunited with the 3 things that will always define him and his culture, despite distance, hardships, or political turmoil: family, food, and the rejuvenating embrace of the Mediterranean.
I’d been introduced to these 3 things already, and naturally I fell fast in love, but this past trip I gained a few extra family members that I never even knew I had.
This is Yia Yia. That’s grandmother in Greek. She’s not my grandmother (who lives in New Jersey and could never be replaced), and she’s not my husband’s grandmother, either.
She is the matriarch of a family that life has graciously connected my dots to. This trip introduced us to my brother-in-law’s girlfriend, and in turn, her unbelievably welcoming family –including Yia Yia.
I got to spend some time in the kitchen with three generations of the most welcoming, accepting, hospitable women I have ever met. There was a lot of hand gestures and translating, but the language barrier didn’t prevent me from feeling genuinely loved. (Really, Yia Yia told me she loved me within our first hour of meeting.)
Of course I feel love everyday from the amazing tribe of friends and family I keep close to me, but this was intense love from a kitchen full of strangers. It was like nothing I’d ever seen or felt.
And all that love is apparently what makes these women turn out some seriously tasty food. Simply cooked, highlighting just a handful of quality ingredients–it’s how Greek cooking won me over when I first experienced it almost 6 years ago.
Luckily, I was accepted into the clan and handed a few classic recipes, which I plan on immediately tarnishing by adding my own spin to them.
First up is this eggplant moussaka, which is sort of like Greek lasagna, with eggplant and other veggies instead of noodles. Classically, it gets layered up and topped with a bechamel sauce. I’ve kept most of the foundation authentic, and swapped out the top with a creamy chickpea puree that is healthier, and arguably tastier (hope I haven’t offended any ancient Greek gods or grandmothers!).
K said he preferred mine to the original, and his opinion clearly carries some weight on this one.
Potatoes, eggplant, and zucchini get pre-cooked and layered neatly into a baking dish. It sort of feels like a craft more than dinner. (This is how you get the opportunity to play with your food in a completely acceptable fashion, so don’t miss out on it)
Next comes the (grass-fed) ground beef from heaven. It gets cooked down with olive oil, oregano, onions, tomato paste, cinnamon, and nutmeg–which sounds like an odd combination, but it has the most yummy, aromatic result.
Then everybody gets tucked in with a blanket of creamy chickpea bechamel–which is really just chickpeas cooked with some milk or milk alternative, butter, and parmesean and blended until silky and spreadable. Shred a little more parm over top and pop that cozy little package into a hot oven.
A little better than half an hour later and this is what you’re left with. Bazinga!
You’ll want to let the moussaka rest for 10-20 minutes before slicing into it, but this corner piece out of the finished work of art gives you a cross-section view of layered goodness. The potatoes stand in firm and hearty as the base, zucchini and eggplant get silky and filled with flavors that seeped down from up above, and the chickpea ceiling stays creamy on the inside and crispy and brown on the outside from the parmesean.
I didn’t include the obligatory hunk of feta in these photos, which my husband was visibly disappointed by.
“This kind of food is what feta was made for.”
That’s straight from a hungry Greek’s mouth, so I’d take his advice if I were you.
Many thanks and kisses sent to Yia Yia for helping this moussaka masterpiece come to life.
- 2 lbs grass-fed ground beef
- 2 medium sized eggplants
- 2-3 medium sized zucchinis
- 2 russet potatoes
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- 1 tbs fresh oregano, or 1 tsp dried
- 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp honey
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- 2 cans chickpeas, or 1 cup dried chickpeas, soaked and cooked*
- 1 cup milk of your choice
- 2 tbs butter
- 1 tbs grated parmesan
- dash of nutmeg
- salt and pepper
- Preheat oven to 375.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the potatoes whole, unpeeled. Make sure potatoes are submerged in water and cover, boiling for about 20 minutes or until a fork can pierce to the center. Drain, and let cool, then remove skin and slice into thin rounds. Reserve.
- While potatoes boil, slice eggplant and zucchini lengthwise. Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and spread in a single layer over baking sheets (I used 2). Add to the oven and cook for 25 minutes.
- Finely dice 1 yellow onion and add to a large pan over medium high heat with olive oil and salt. Saute until onions begin to turn translucent and add oregano, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Cook for another minute and add ground beef. Cook until beef begins to brown and add 1 can of tomato paste, 1 tsp honey, splash of broth or water, salt, and pepper. Cover and allow to cook for about 10 minutes.
- To a pot add chickpeas, milk, butter, grated parmesan, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and reduce heat, sImmering for 5 minutes. Transfer to a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Reserve.
- Assemble your moussaka by layering potatoes across the bottom of a baking pan or casserole dish. Sprinkle with salt. Continue layering eggplant slices, followed by zucchini slices, ground beef mixture, and finally topping with chickpea bechamel. Sprinkle additional grated parmesan over top, and bake for 40 minutes. Allow to cool for 10-20 minutes before slicing. Serve with feta cheese and greens.
*Soaking and sprouting legumes prior to cooking makes them easier to digest and more nutritious *Moussaka is delicious the day you make it and even better as leftovers, as the flavors have time to marry one another.
Don't let me do all the talking! Let me know what you think in the comments.