Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tessa's Moussaka for Dan.

In a whirlwindish trip of 26 countries in 21 weeks, whether you want to or not, you learn a fair bit about a person. That's how, in 2007, I came to know so well the man who was to change everything. Just like me, he loves food, but as much as he has the capacity to appreciate the finest gingered sashimi in a Ginza backstreet or some perfectly roast Mexican lamb in the hills of Oaxaca, he likes the simple things in life. For instance, Dan can never say no to a hot dog. He just doesn't have The Hot Dog Restraint Gene. Not the gourmet kind of hot dog, the fluro-orange-on-squishy-white-with-a-squidge-of-tomato-and-mustard-kind. Oh, Dan. And the man loves pasta. He goes all glassy eyed when he he talks about spaghetti, cooks spaghetti, sees spaghetti on a menu, orders spaghetti from room service after a 2 course meal of Nepalese food. We estimate that he probably ordered spaghetti bolognaise in every single country we visited, and we went to some very non-spaghetti-ish places like Cuba and Morocco (his favourite was in Costa Rica). Dan is the kind of guy who can't watch his kid cousins tucking into some mac and cheese and turkey sandwiches without sidling up alongside with his very own bowl. Meat Pie and Vanilla Milkshake Classic, he is, my Dan. He is beautiful to cook for, all appetite and appreciation, he brings out the Old Wog Mum in me that wants to make big, classic, baked dishes, rich and hearty and warmly filling - and this is coming from a girl who aced feminist philosophy. My, my, how we turn...

...and what wonderful things we turn into. Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros is exactly the kind of recipe book to turn to when you want something as resounding and commanding as this moussaka. I simply love Tessa: Mad Girl Crush. Her photos of food and great grandmothers, her winsomely textured writing style, the story-ness of her cooking, her deep, dark eyes: all of these things lend some kind of strange essence to her cookbooks, they are set apart. Precious. Different. I always look forward to trying something new from her well recorded recipe past. And it always turns out this good. You've had enough cake, don't you think? Enough eating out for a while, yes? It's time to get cooking, Good Looking...

For Tessa's Aunt's Moussaka (don't try saying that one at home, lispers) Recipe, as in Falling Cloudberries, you'll need:
2 large eggplants (aubergines, if you absolutely insist)
25oml/1 cup of light olive oil (I use HeavyHardCore Olive Oil, The Radioactive Green Kind, Lebanese people are not allowed to use light, very unpatriotic)
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 tablespoons roughly chopped flat parsley
2 garlic gloves, finely chopped (I used 4, again, I plead Lebaneseness)
850g mixed pork/beef for moo-saka (I used pork/lamb)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf (2)
125ml 1/2 cup white wine
500g 2 cups of tomato passata (used a great, heady Simon Johnson one, very rich red red red)
500g peeled potato

and for the bechamel sauce (yes, I was surprised it had bechamel in it too)...

120g butter (I always use organic, in good dishes, it makes such a creamy difference, honestly, normal butter is crud, it tastes like dull greasy crap, organic butter is Taste Tenor)
125g 1 cup of plain flour (I used to spelt to make it that much (not much) healthier)
1 litre/4 cups warm milk (use organic again, you can taste it, I swear)
A little freshly grated nutmeg (oooh, how nice does that sound!).

This'll serve 8 normal people, or Dan and his lovely flatmate, Eddie.

Tessa's right to warn that it seems like a big job, but it really isn't. I find it really relaxing to make and enjoy the slight architectonicness of its assemblage. The steps are a few, but they're all simple enough and really rewarding for the effort. Step 1: You begin by scalping the heads off the eggplant and slicing them lengthways into 5mm thick slices, pay attention to the width, it makes the texture true when the slices aren't too thick or thin, leave them, with a heavy sprinkling of salt, to soak in water for 30 minutes. This makes the eggplant less bitter, given it's such a reactive food for a lot of people, don't skip this step.

Step 2: Heat three tablespoons of oil and sautee onion until golden. Add the parsley and garlic and cook it until you can smell the garlic, then add the mince. Cook all of this lovely shlup over medium high til meat is browned/and it loses its water. Then add the cinnamon, oregano, bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste. I used about half a pepper shaker, I love the fire of it. Step 3: When the meat is golden, add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan to make sure none has stuck. Once the wine has evaporated like good sense from the mind of a raving drunk, add the tomato puree and leave it to simmer on a low heat, with no cover, for about 30 minutes, stirring a little with a wooden spoon. This is where a wonderful aroma of Meaty-Cinnamoned-Garlic-Tomato should begin to conquer the intoxicated walls of your nasal passages like a Greek army advancing relentlessly into a Petrified Persia. The moussaka already starts to taunt and tease you before it has even taken shape, this is the real joy of cooking: you begin to imagine it before you begin to taste. Food should always be prefaced by anticipation.

Step 4: ...Meanwhile (back at Control's Headquarters), massacre those evil potatoes into 5mm lengthways slices and pat them dry. Then heat 4/5 tablespoons of oil and fry them in batches, on both sides, until golden brown, then place them on kitchen paper/red checkered tea towel to absorb the excess oil and sprinkle with salt. Step 5: rinse the eggplant and pat dry, while closely watching them (apparently they are more emotionally fragile than potatoes), fry them in batches as well. When one side is golden, turn over and prick with a fork in several places then let the other side cook. Tessa gives a great tip when she advises that we push them down with the smooth of fork, they should collapse and feel very mushy and pureed like. Then lay them out as well on paper/towel and (she said sea) salt. Tessa says that if they are darkened but still hard within, stack them on top of each other on the towel and the steam will soften the insides. To try to minimize the oil slick, Tessa only adds a tablespoon of oil for each new batch.

Step 6: Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Use, ideally, a transparent dish thats about 35cm long, 24 cm wide and 6 cm deep. The depth is particularly important because of the layering, it's easy to go over the top. Arrange half the eggplant on the bottom, a little overlapping is okay, then try to add the potatoes in a single layer. Layer all of this with half the mince, pressing down with the back of a spoon. Add the rest of the eggplant on top of this, then the rest of the mince. Once all of this is pressed down, there should be a 2 1/2 cm gap for the final, glorious stage.

Step 7: The bechamel is a little bit of a tricky fucker. And it needs to be made just before the moussaka is put into the oven, so don't get any crazy ideas about short cuts or head starts. With the milk gently warmed on a low heat, take your butter and melt it in a saucepan, whisk in the flour and cook for a few minutes stirring constantly, then begin adding the warm milk in very little dribs and draps. I have never had a deep or big enough pan to do this in, it always spills a little, the bigger the pan the more comfortably you can whisk and actually get the bechamel fluffy. As you add milk it will quickly absorb, keep whisking and add a little more. When it's all done it should be smooth and not too stiff, add salt and pepper to taste and the nutmeg and keep cooking even after it comes to the boil for 5 minutes or so, mixing it all the anxious, exciting while. It should be very thick and smooth (like a Rugby League player with a groupie), taste it for seasoning, then pour it delightfully over the mince (very satisfying step, this one, you'll feel a little bit prouder than you probably should). The bechamel should come square flat, eye to eye, with the top of the dish.

Take a look at that dish, at how deliciously cosy it is in there, crammed full of all that meaty, potatoed, melting eggplantish yumminess. The cross section should get you a little excited, and the smell should be divine. It's squished, slabbed scrumptiousness in waiting.

Bake for 45 minutes - 1 hour, I always take it out a little too soon (impatience). If you leave it a little longer after the flecks of gorgeous crispy brown start to splinter into the creamy bechamel skin, this is where it taskes its firmer, final shape. It still tastes as apocalpytically agonizing when it's a little moist and undone, but I am sure Traditional Greeks are fussy about the shape, don't think mine measures up there, but taste wise, they've got nothing on me!

Check that one out. Tessa tells us we should leave it for a while to cool before we serve - don't, this is well worth 3rd degree burns to the tongue. So delicious, so deep and rich. You will go mad smelling hints of the nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon mixing with the sweetness of the beautiful pork and lamb. God. It is such a satisfying meal to make, to smell, to bring out to a table of a hungry people, to look at, to slowly savour mouthful after melting, meaty, perfectly seasoned mouthful of.

Pause between bites and try to follow all of the flavours all the way through. They weave all across themselves. At first it's the creaminess of the beautifully buttered and golden bechamel, a sticky, cheese-esque (great word) burnt top layer, a delicious crust that belies the soft, frothy, rich, thick, slow, steaming texture beneath. MouthDreamInMeat. The lamb and pork will bass note through the pepper and sweetened tomato, and this, flamed with the sharpness of the garlic and wine, descends into a fatal finale of the faintest flickerings, the gentlest murmurings, of curiously CinnamonedNutmeg. Who else is ready to die now, complete?

It'll make you cross eyed with satisfaction. This is wonderfully rewarding food to cook. You feel great having made it, it's the essence of the home cooked ideal. You want to make it for people you care about, people you love, people it makes you happy to see all rosy cheeked with warm, well fededness - or people whom you absolutely abhor, who you want to subtly undermine the confidence of with your amazing moussaka prowess, and send off into the night sobbing about just how amazing you are.

Tessa, you are delicious! Get Falling Cloudberries if you are looking for some foodspiration.

Take a bow when you're done, just don't do it in front of anybody.

1 comment:

Sophie said...

This is one lovely moussaka!!

How can you fail?? MMMMMMMMMMMMMMM,...