Moussaka Made Easy

I recently ran across an article in the Dining section of the New York Times which piqued my interest. The recipe was for a relatively easy version of the Greek dish, moussaka. This Greek dish is one of my favorites to consume, but certainly low on my list of production, simply because it’s rather complicated and time-consuming. Sure, if I had a professional kitchen, like my daughter’s godfather has on one of the Greek isles in the Aegean, making moussaka would not seem as daunting. However, in my small New York City kitchen, it has remained a distant dish.

For those of you unaware of what exactly moussaka is, it is a casserole of minced meat and sliced potatoes and eggplant, with a generous helping of thick bechamel sauce on top. It’s certainly not the healthiest of dinner options, but it tastes divine and is a fantastic, stick-to-your-ribs winter dish. The following, simplified recipe is more of a shepherd’s pie than an authentic moussaka, however, it still stays pretty true to its original tastes. My Greek husband was actually completely silent while he consumed this dish the last time I made it, and he had second and third helpings. Need I say more?

Most farmer’s markets are still selling various types of eggplant, so feel free to combine a few different varieties. I used ground beef, however, ground lamb works just as nicely and adds another dimension of taste. Just be sure to drain a bit of the fat off that will accumulate when cooking the lamb, as its fat content is higher than beef.

Yield: 6-8 main dish portions

4 small eggplants, halved and sliced into 1/2″ pieces
1 1/2 lb. potatoes, peeled and chopped into 1″ cubes
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1/3 c. whole milk
4 Tbl. unsalted butter
2 large eggs, preferably organic
3/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese (you could also use Greek kefalotiri cheese, if it is available)
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 lb. ground beef or lamb
1 lg. red or yellow onion, roughly chopped
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
2 dried bay leaves
3/4 c. ground or crushed can tomato
1 Tbl. sugar
1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped
3 Tbl. bread crumbs, preferably whole wheat
olive oil
salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place the chopped eggplant into a colander and sprinkle with some salt. Allow the eggplant to sit for about 15  minutes, while the moisture inside the eggplant begins to be released. Drain off any excess liquid that accumulates. Arrange the eggplant onto a baking tray, and toss with enough olive oil to generously coat all the pieces. Add about 1/8 c. of water to the bottom of the pan, but be sure not to add too much water, or else the eggplant won’t roast properly. Place the eggplant into the preheated oven, and allow to roast for about 30-40 minutes. Occasionally shake the pan, so that the eggplant pieces don’t bake hard onto the tray. Once the eggplant is cooked through, remove from the oven and set aside. Turn down the heat to 400°F, or, if you prefer, shut off the oven and reheat right before you begin to assemble the moussaka in the baking dish.

Place the peeled, chopped potatoes into a large pot, filled with water about an inch above the potatoes. Add about 1 Tbl. of salt. Set aside.

As the eggplants roast in the oven, add the chopped onion and garlic to a large sauté pan with a good glug or two of olive oil on medium-high heat. When the onion and garlic begin to soften, after 2-3 minutes, add the ground meat, breaking the meat into small pieces as it browns. Add the cloves, cinnamon stick, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the tomato and sprinkle the sugar over the mixture. Add the bay leaves. Stir together. Lower the heat to low. Cover the pan and allow to gently simmer. After about 10 minutes, you may need to add some water, about 1/4 c. at a time, to the sauce, as you don’t want it to thicken too quickly. The sauce should be ready in about 20 minutes, however, if you have the time, allow it to cook longer, about 30-40 minutes, so the flavors meld together more. Turn off the heat, and stir in the roasted eggplant. Quickly beat in one egg, so it doesn’t begin to cook separately in the sauce. Stir in the chopped parsley.

While the sauce cooks, start boiling the pot of water with the potatoes. You may want to cover the pot to get it boiling more quickly, but once it begins to boil, remove the cover and turn down the heat slightly. Whisk one egg, the milk, and 1/2 c. of the grated cheese together in a small bowl. Set aside. After about 15-20 minutes, the potatoes should be soft enough to easily poke a fork through. Drain the potatoes in a colander, then replace back into the pot. Add the egg/milk mixture, along with some salt, pepper, the ground nutmeg, and the butter to the cooked potatoes. Mash together, making sure not to leave any large chunks of potatoes. Cover; set aside.

Using a 9-10″ square baking dish, pour in the meat and eggplant sauce, making sure it coats the bottom evenly. Spoon the mashed potato mixture evenly on top of the sauce. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 c. of cheese and the bread crumbs over the top. Place in the oven, and after about 30 minutes, when the top has browned nicely, remove. Allow to cool slightly before serving.

This dish keeps well in the fridge, and honestly, tastes good cold, at room temperature, or hot. Kind of like pizza, I guess. But that’s just my opinion. I have prepared the moussaka completely, and then, because of time constraints, left the baking for a couple of hours later. You could always make a much larger portion and freeze half for a later time. There’s nothing like knowing in the back of your head that an entire dinner awaits you in the freezer, saving you tons of time and energy. And I know we could all use that once in a while!

I hope you enjoy this dish as much I do. Feel free to let us know by posting a comment or writing to us at: twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com   Happy eating!

Cheese Pie with Mint

While I can’t say this dish is necessarily healthy for you, it certainly does taste good. Then again, most things that aren’t good for you tend to be that way, don’t they? Greek pies, or pitas, as they are called in Greek, are made in many different ways: fried, baked, made into snail shapes, figure eights, and even cake-like pieces. The fillings for these divine little pies are even more innumerable. Cheese, spinach, pumpkin, leek, minced meat, and sweet cream are just a few ways these pies are filled. Honestly, the possibilities are limitless, sort of like toppings for a pizza. Whatever your taste buds fancy can be placed inside, or on top, of dough!

I suppose that, not unlike the perfect pizza, the perfect pita requires a bit of practice. The following recipe for dough is rather easy, and is the basic recipe most Greek women use to make homemade phyllo. (For those of you unaware, phyllo dough is the extremely thin pieces of dough used in many Greek pitas and desserts. If you watch a skilled cook roll out phyllo, it looks as easy as a ballet dancer performing a full-length ballet. Both artists have honed their skill to perfection, and to the novice, every move seems to be done with extreme ease. However, this is not the case. Making sheets of homemade phyllo is a bit difficult, so by all means practice your heart away, but don’t be too discouraged. Most grocery stores carry packages of phyllo sheets in the frozen section.)

The original recipe does not call for mint, but I think it adds a wonderful dimension to the cheese filling. Although these pies are definitely best eaten straight from the pan, they do keep well once refrigerated and make a great snack for the beach. This recipe is fun to make with children, and can be an exciting birthday party activity, so get your children involved if they are interested.

Yield: 24 pitas

For the dough:

2 c. flour
1 c. water
1 lg. spoon of red wine vinegar, or lemon juice
¼ c. olive oil
1 sm. spoon of salt

Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl. The resulting dough should be a bit more sticky than pizza dough. Cover and place in the refrigerator for about one hour.

Cheese Filling:

1 c. grated feta cheese
2 lg. eggs
1 small bunch of fresh mint, finely chopped
(alternatively, you could use 1 Tbl. dried mint)
Freshly grated pepper

Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl. Set aside.

When the dough is ready, cut off small chunks of the dough. On a floured surface, roll out the small chunks of dough into thin circles, much like little pizzas. You can even perform this task with your hands, stretching the dough into the correct thickness and shape.

Place a small amount of the cheese filling onto one side of the dough, flattening it slightly with a fork. (Be careful not to add too much filling onto the dough, as you will not be able to completely seal the pita’s edges for frying.)

Fold the dough over, making a half moon shape. Pinch the edge of the dough together, forming a “pocket” around the filling. Set aside and repeat with the remaining portions of dough and filling.

Prepare a large sauté pan with about an inch of oil. You can use olive oil, or another seed, or vegetable oil of your choice. When the oil is ready (you can fling a few droplets of water into the oil, and if it hisses and bubbles, the oil is at the correct temperature for frying), gently place about five of the pitas into the pan. Be sure to poke each pita a few times with the tines of a fork to allow the pies to cook through properly.

Once one side is nicely browned, flip over and cook the opposite side. You will know if your dough came out well if the crust of each pie is a bit bubbly. Allow to cool about 10 minutes before eating, however, I usually can’t wait that long and end up burning my tongue a bit. Enjoy!

Have any other ideas for Greek pie fillings? Let us and our other readers know by commenting below, or by sending us an email: twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com

Beef & Eggplant: A Prelude to a Greek Summer

During the weeks leading up to my family’s departure to Greece every summer, I’m always inspired to cook dishes which will leave my home with those familiar aromas I so enjoy while I’m in that beautiful Mediterranean country.  One of my favorite aspects of the Greek cuisine is that it is very seasonal. For example, typical salads served during the summer months, like horiatiki, most commonly known as “Greek” salad, are replaced with salads like raw cabbage with carrots during the winter months.

Eggplant is abundantly available during the summer months, and it is incorporated into numerous Greek dishes. One of my favorite dishes to make, which incorporates this bulbous, perennial fruit, is a slow-cooked combination with chunks of beef, tomato, and parsley. Although this dish takes a few hours to complete, it really doesn’t require much labor on your part. You only need to plan ahead, allowing enough time to complete the meal before stomachs begin to growl, or at my home, howl.

This dish melts in your mouth, and it is a fabulous choice to serve for a dinner party. Pair it with a simple salad, or a summer vegetable side dish, such as broad beans or zucchini. I tend to eat this dish with slices of freshly baked bread and some feta cheese, but you could always make a side of rice or orzo pasta. It’s really up to you and the depth of bellies you must fill. Enjoy! And Viva Summer!!!

Yield: 4 main course meals

1- 1.5 lbs. organic beef stew meat, left in large chunks
1 large onion, roughly chopped
4-5 cloves garlic, smashed
20 oz. fire roasted crushed tomatoes (like Muir Glen brand)
appx. 1 c. water
1/2 c. chopped parsley
1/4 c. olive oil

1 lg. eggplant (or 4-5 small eggplants), peeled, ends removed, and chopped in 2″ pieces
1 Tbl. sugar
1/2 c. olive oil (you may need slightly less or more)

Heat half the oil (1/8 c.) on medium-high heat in a large, oven-proof sauté pan. When hot, add the meat. (Be sure to season the raw meat slightly with salt and pepper, rubbing it in, which will aid in optimal seasoning.) Brown the meat on both sides, then add the chopped onion and garlic. Pour in the other 1/8 c. of olive oil, and give a good couple of twists of salt and pepper. Allow the onions to cook until translucent (about 3-4 minutes), then add the tomatoes, water,  and chopped parsley. Give it a good stir, cover, and allow to stew on very low heat for about 2 hours.

Meanwhile, in another pan, on very low heat, add 1/2 c. oil and the eggplant pieces. Toss to coat the eggplant with the oil, sprinkle in the sugar, then cover and allow to cook slowly. Do not move the pieces too much or the eggplant with fall apart. You want the pieces to stay intact as much as possible. Allow to cook through, about 1 hour. Set aside.

About 30 minutes prior to the meat finishing on the stove top, preheat your oven to about 400°F. Place the eggplant pieces gently into the meat sauce. Place the pan on the lower third of the oven, uncovered, and allow to continue cooking for another 30 minutes. Remember that pan handle will be hot after the oven! I recommend placing an oven mitt over the handle once you remove the pan from the oven. (I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten just how hot that handle was before I grasped it!)

Cinnamon Yogurt Coffee Cake

It’s always a good idea to have 4-5 dessert recipes floating around in your head, and the ingredients available in your pantry, just in case you need to pull something together quickly for last-minute guests. What I love about the following recipe is that it is easy and fairly quick to make, plus it looks and tastes impressive. One of my favorite seasonings is cinnamon. I add it to cookies, sauces, and even the occasional meatball. I immediately think of yummy-ness when I smell cinnamon, and I even admit to having taken whiffs from a jar of the ground stuff when I need a quick pick-me-up!

This recipe originally calls for sour cream, but since I regularly have thick Greek yogurt on hand in the fridge, I always substitute the sour cream with it. Not only is yogurt nutritionally superior to sour cream, I find it provides the finished product with a better taste and moistness, as well. I highly recommend purchasing the FAGE brand of Greek yogurt if it is available to you. Be aware of certain brands, like Trader Joe’s, which claims their product is Greek yogurt. It isn’t. And it certainly does not taste the way it’s supposed to……trust me.

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (keep the wrapper and use it to butter the pan before baking)
1 c. sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 c. Greek yogurt, preferably full fat
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Topping:
1/2 c. chopped nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts)
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cinnamon

1 springform tube pan, greased (if you don’t have a springform pan, you could use a regular tube pan, however the springform pan makes the cake’s removal much easier after it’s finished baking).

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Prepare the topping first, placing the nuts, sugar, and cinnamon into a food processor. Process until the nuts are ground into fairly small pieces and incorporated with the cinnamon and sugar. Set aside.

In a small bowl, add the flour, salt, baking powder and baking soda and stir together with a whisk. Set aside. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, then the vanilla. Alternating between the yogurt and dry ingredients, add to the wet mixture until all the ingredients are incorporated together.

Take your buttered pan and sprinkle the bottom with the nut mixture, adding about 1/4″ evenly around the tube pan. Add half the cake batter. (Don’t worry if it’s not completely even. It will even out while baking. I drop spoonfuls around the tube pan, attempting to cover the circle evenly, but it is ok if there are some small spaces.) Add another layer of nut mixture, using the remaining portion. The finished cake looks nice with a substantial line of cinnamon and nuts throughout the middle, so don’t feel like you’re adding “too much.” Add the remaining portion of cake batter around the tube pan.

Place the pan into the oven and bake anywhere from 30-40 minutes. Set your timer for 30 minutes and keep an eye on it. You don’t want it to dry out too much. Test with a cake tester, or a good old-fashioned tooth pick, into the middle of the cake. If it comes out clean, your cake is ready.  Place on a cooling rack and allow to cool for about 10 minutes before attempting to remove it from the pan. If you are not using a springform pan, do not be tempted to remove the cake from the pan for a good 20-30 minutes, or else the cake could come out in pieces.

I like to place this cake on a nice display cake dome, but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. I do recommend covering it, which allows it to retain more moisture. This cake lends itself to a nice vanilla ice cream pairing, or perhaps even some fresh berries during the summer months. Honestly, I think this cake is better the following day, and it certainly lasts a good four days before it’s too dry. But if your house is anything like mine, I don’t think this cake will last four days…….

WSJ: Why To Eat Like A Greek

Recently, in the Wall Street Journal, there was a short article entitled, “Why To Eat Like A Greek.” Of course, since my husband is Greek, the article intrigued me, and I quickly read through it. Greek researchers have new evidence that the Mediterranean diet, rich in fish, vegetables, and olive oil, reduces mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer. This latest study included more than 500,000 patients and “found the diet had beneficial effects against five components of a prediabetic condition called metabolic syndrome.” The study’s analysis found that sticking to a Mediterranean diet reduces someone’s chance of developing this syndrome by 31%.

What was interesting to me was that there were certain limitations to the findings, such as the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet for people outside this geographic area of the world were significantly less than those partaking in the study who actually lived in the Mediterranean. Of course, genes come into play, but it made me wonder why. And in a split second, I thought to myself that it most likely had something to do with the quality of the food ingredients the Mediterranean people consume. Regardless of the combinations of food you’re consuming, if you’re not eating quality food, it obviously won’t do you much good.

As I have traveled many times to Greece, as well as many other European countries, and have had the opportunity to see first-hand the quality of the food at EU grocery stores, I can tell you that their standard levels are much, much higher when it comes to food than those of us from the States. To give you an example, I remember the first time I ventured to the grocery store alone, without my interpreter-husband, in Greece. I was rather shocked to find that when I asked for some ground meat, they allowed me to pick out the piece of meat I wanted, and then ground it right then and there. Perhaps you live in a town with a small butcher’s shop which offers you the same service. But this is a rare exception in America, where ground meat is almost always pre-ground from who-only-knows-what kind of meat cuts. Most Europeans, despite Westernization and some large supermarkets springing up, do their shopping at specialty shops, such as the butcher and the baker. And they insist on high-quality ingredients. Most of their food is of organic quality, without necessarily having the label. When you have a personal relationship with the person chopping up your meat or baking your bread, you most likely will get a better product. The impersonality of big box supermarkets leads to mystery: mystery about how fresh something is, and even greater mysteries about where it came from.

I whole-heartedly agree with the findings of this latest Mediterranean diet study. Not only does this cuisine taste fantastic and is highly diversified with fish, vegetables, and grains, it just makes you feel good while you’re eating it. So you know something good is going on inside you. So go out there, shop locally when at all possible, and raise a glass to health. As they say in Greece, “Stini yia su!” [Cheers!]

Greek Meatballs

My husband is Greek; therefore, I am now Greek by association! The ultimate test for a woman who is married to a Greek is how well she cooks (the Greeks love to eat and they certainly eat well!). The meatball, once mastered, is appreciated by young and old alike. There are countless recipes out there, but I must tell you, after years of desperately attempting one recipe after another, I finally was able to watch a Greek friend’s mother make her version last summer. I must admit, I will never have to look for another recipe again. These guys are addictive! You could make a large batch and freeze whatever portion you don’t intend to cook that day, but in my house, they go so quickly that I don’t ever have any extra meat mix to freeze. There are also many versions of dishes you can incorporate the meatballs into, which I will explain below. But if you are like me, you might just want to eat them right out of the pan.

 (Yield: 25 meatballs)

  • 1 lb.  ground organic, grass-fed beef (you could substitute a ¼ lb. of ground pork if you prefer)
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 large organic egg
  • 5-6 lg. spoonfuls bread crumbs
  • 6-7 lg. spoonfuls olive oil
  • 1 lg. spoonful red wine or sherry vinegar
  • 2-3 cherry tomatoes
  • 1 large bunch of parsely
  • 1 small bunch of mint
  • 1/2-3/4 lg. spoonful salt (to your liking)
  • 1 sm. spoonful dried oregano
  • ½ sm. spoonful ground cumin (add more or less to your liking)
  • Ground pepper to taste
  • ¾ c. flour (for dredging)
  • 2 c. (about) olive oil for frying

*By large spoonful, I mean the largest spoon in your home cutlery set, and a small spoon being the dessert spoon.

Store bought breadcrumbs work just as well in this recipe, but if you have some stale bread (about ½ a baguette) break into chunks and process in food processor until fine crumbs form. Measure out 5-6 lg. spoonfuls and store any extra breadcrumbs in a sealed container.

In a food processor, add the onion and garlic, tomatoes, and herbs, and process until coarsely chopped. In a large bowl, add the meat, egg, processed onion mixture, bread crumbs, oil, vinegar, salt, pepper, oregano, and cumin. Begin adding large spoonfuls of oil. However, do not add the oil all at once. Continue adding spoonfuls of oil while you mix the ingredients by hand. The mixture should feel soft and very easy to mold once you have finished mixing it with your hands.The key to making meatballs is how well you mix all the ingredients together. So get your hands messy and have some fun!

Break off large cookie dough size portions of the meat mixture and roll into balls. Slightly flatten the meatballs to make a shape in between a ball and a disk. Dredge with flour and shake off any excess. Set aside.

Meanwhile, in a heavy bottomed frying pan, heat your oil. When you flick a few drops of water into the oil with your fingers and is bubbles, the oil is ready. Carefully add the meatballs (about 8 at a time) into the pan. Allow to cook for approximately 2 minutes on each side. With a slotted spoon, transfer cooked meatballs to a paper towel-lined plate.

If you can bear to wait the 5 minutes it takes to allow the meatballs to cool, then you won’t burn your tongue. Otherwise, best of luck!

Side Suggestions:

Traditionally, the Greeks always serve meatballs with French fries. I usually peel 5 potatoes and hand cut them into thin pieces. Then fry them in a pan on the stove with some olive oil until nicely crisped. Alternatively, you could always bake some seasoned potato wedges in the oven at 350° F for about 45 minutes.

Alternate Meatball Dishes:

Make a simple red sauce (onion, garlic, can tomato, bay leaf, etc). Meanwhile, on very low heat, add some olive oil and halved, de-seeded green peppers. Cover, and allow to cook very slowly until peppers are soft. Add cooked peppers and cooked meatballs to sauce. Cook until flavors blend, about 15 minutes. Serve with some good crusty bread, or with pasta.