When I was younger my best friend was a girl named Maria who lived right across the street. On our first encounter we sat on our banana-seat bikes (mine still had training wheels) and began the age-old getting-to-know-you ritual of young children everywhere: We exchanged names, ages, addresses and birth dates, and upon discovering that ours were the same (October 17th) proceeded to become inseparable.
Maria and I had many long and glorious afternoons together; we rode our bikes, played with my Shira Princess of Power castle, watched age-inappropriate music videos (it was the dawn of MTV), tormented her older sister, drank gallons of orange juice, adopted a pet rock that we prayed to while draped in my mother’s old scarves, jumped in leaf piles, rang neighbor’s doorbells and ran away — and we ate. Specifically, we ate her mother’s cooking.
Dina (or Mrs. Mouzakis, as I was supposed to call her but never quite could, since my parents weren’t into the whole Mr and Mrs thing) was, as far as I could tell, the most incredible cook in the entire world. She was also exotically different than my own mother, which made her mysterious and alluring.
Dina worked at the local market as a cashier, spoke broken English, chain-smoked, and swore in Greek at the family parakeet. She also made moist and flavorful Moussaka, sliced potatoes with peppery oil, soothing lemon soup filled with tender bits of chicken and rice and boxes and boxes of adorable, shaped Greek cookies (kolourias, kolourakia, etc).
The Mouzakis house was small and warm and filled with Jesus and Mary statues, heavy old furniture, wall-to-wall carpeting, cigarette smoke, and the smell of thick, syrupy black coffee. I thought it was the most divine place to be. When lunch or dinner time rolled around I would always take my time finding my sweatshirt and lacing up my shoes in the hopes of securing an invitation to the table. Most of the time the invitation was extended and I would find myself happily seated next to George (Mr. Mouzakis, who spoke even less English than his wife), sopping up leftover bits of oil and tomato with a hunk of crusty bread, while the family banter whirled through the air around me: bits of English followed by long strings of Greek and laughter.
As the years went by (my family spending some of them abroad) my friendship with Maria became strained. By the time my family moved away for good, Maria and I had little left in common and would have been unlikely to remain friends into adulthood even if I had stayed. Nonetheless, I think about her all the time, and about Dina and how her cooking tasted and the way it kept her family together as they navigated the landscape of assimilation. I am thankful to her for welcoming me to their table so many times, and for allowing me to partake in her family’s life to such a rewarding extent.
I cannot tell you all how thrilled I am to have found Isa and Terry’s Moussaka recipe. And although it is not authentic by any means, it is crazy, out-of-this-world delicious and the flavors and texture of the layered, thinly sliced vegetables are without a doubt, reminiscent of Dina’s Moussaka.
Eggplant-Potato Moussaka with Pine Nut Cream, adapted from Veganomicon
Before you begin, you should know that this recipe is what my mother calls “a patchke”- that means a pain in the ass. Personally, I wouldn’t go that far because I think food preparation is fun, but I will say that you need some time and patience and it helps to do this in stages. The basic idea here is a layered vegetable casserole with some tomato sauce to keep things moist and a creamy topping that tastes good and locks the filling in, like a crust. You can roast the veggies one day and keep them on a flat sheet pan, covered with foil in the fridge for a day or two and you can also make the sauce and cream ahead of time. If all you have to do on the day you are going to serve it, is assemble and bake it, it makes eating much more fun.
1 lb. eggplant
1 lb. zucchini
1 1/2 lb. russet potatoes
1/4 olive oil (HA, a least. More is better!)
salt and pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
4 large shallots, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup vegetable broth or red wine
2, 15 oz cans crushed tomatoes, with juice
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I use a cinnamon stick, simmer it in the sauce and remove it when the sauce is done)
1 bay leaf
Pine Nut Cream
Pine nuts are not my favorite, plus the are pricey, so I use walnuts in mine and it works very well.
1 lb. silken tofu
1/2 cup pine nuts or chopped walnuts
1 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp arrowroot powder
1 clove garlic
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup dry, fine bread crumbs (I use whole wheat)
Prepare the vegetables
Wash the eggplant and zucchini, and trim the stems. Scrub and peel the potatoes. Slice the eggplant, zucchini, and potatoes lengthwise into approximately 1/4 inch thick slices. Rub the eggplant slices with a little salt and set aside in a colander in the sink or in a big bowl for about 15 minutes to drain. Briefly rinse with cold water and pat dry with a paper towel.
Place each vegetable on a separate baking sheet. Distribute the 1/4 c of oil among the three and sprinkle the vegetables with salt (except eggplant). Toss to coat the vegetables on each sheet, making sure each piece is completely coated with oil. Drizzle a little extra oil on the eggplant, as it has a slight tendency to stick. Spread out the vegetables on each sheet; some overlapping is okay. Roast the pans of zucchini and eggplant for 15 minutes, or until tender. Roast the potatoes for about 20 to 22 minutes, until the edges are lightly browned. Allow the vegetables to cool.
Prepare the Tomato Sauce
Combine the remaining 1/4 c olive oil and minced garlic in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan. Heat over medium heat and let the garlic sizzle for about 30 seconds, then add the shallots and cook until soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the wine and simmer until slightly reduced, another 3 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, oregano, ground cinnamon, and bay leaf. Partially cover and simmer over medium-low heat for 12 to 14 minutes, stirring occasionally. The sauce should reduce slightly. Turn off the heat, remove the bay leaf, and adjust the salt.
Make the Pine Nut Cream
In a food processor, blend the pine nuts and lemon juice, scraping the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, until a creamy paste forms. Add the tofu, garlic, arrowroot, nutmeg, salt, and white pepper. Blend until creamy and smooth.
Lightly oil a 9 x 13 pan and preheat the oven again to 400F, if necessary. Spread 1/4 c of sauce on the pan, then add successive layers in order of eggplant, potatoes, sauce, and half the bread crumbs. Spread all the zucchini on top of this. Top with a final layer each of eggplant, potatoes, sauce, and bread crumbs. Use a rubber spatula to evenly spread the pine nut cream over the entire top layer. Scatter a few pine nuts on top, if desired.
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is lightly browned and a few cracks have formed in the topping. Allow to cool 10 minutes before slicing and serving.