Thank you SO much to all of you who voted me through to the second challenge.
And here it is: Challenge Number Two: Make a classic dish; not French or Italian. Leave your comfort zone.
I asked my oldest son, The Musician, what cuisine he thought I should explore. He said Tahitian. Really, what kind of help was I actually expecting to get from a teenage boy?!
I thought about making a classic German dish, but as I am almost half German, I didn't feel like I would be venturing into the unfamiliar with that. British food, forgive me, isn't all that exciting and again is not a stretch. I am afraid Indian food would go to waste with my crew of taste testers (aka children). Japanese food would require access to fish not labeled “Chicken of the Sea” in a small landlocked Arizona town.
My options were running out, when it hit me. Greek food. Other than eating gyros periodically for lunch and drooling over recipes for spanakopita, I'd actually never made any. Certainly no one could argue that it was outside my comfort zone. In fact, the last time I ate Greek food at a real Greek restaurant, it was years ago, for my sister-in-law's birthday. She had found a little out of the way place south of Seattle and had all of the extended family gather there one evening. We all sat down at a great big family style table, had ordered our meals and were just getting down to the job of catching up on each others' lives when music started. Out from behind a veiled doorway, came a barely veiled woman. Belly dancing. All four sets of my sons' eyes widened as far as they'd go as that gyrating, not so svelte woman jiggled her way over to the table. I can't even tell you what we ate that night. I was too busy fielding questions and covering boys' eyes.
Yes, I definitely needed to revisit Greek cuisine... Even if it was only to make some new, more comfortable memories to associate with that lovely food.
The fates (Greek reference intended, of course) smiled upon me, putting eggplant on sale, and making the dish choice easy. Moussaka. I am not Greek food ignorant, you see. I am just Greek food inexperienced. So, I Googled every recipe for moussaka I could find, read through every cookbook in the house and then went about making this classic dish...with all of the normal frugality my nature is inclined to include.
Moussaka: (loosely based on a recipe found in a community cookbook called I Love New York and another found on greekfood.about.com):
2 large eggplants, peeled and sliced into rounds ¼ inch thick
½ cup salt dissolved in 2 quarts water
1 pound lean ground beef (I know it should be lamb, but beef is a suitable substitute on a budget)
½ onion, chopped
1 quart home canned tomatoes (29 ounces store bought diced), drained
2 Tbsp tomato paste
½ tsp oregano
1 tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp allspice
1 tsp garlic powder
½ cup red wine
1 Tbsp honey (this is dependent on the acidity of your tomatoes ~ mine needed it)
1 summer squash, chopped (optional, it was the last one from my garden and really wanted to be a Greek)
2 large baking potatoes (patA'tes – this is legal, there are several versions with these included)
¼ cup plain bread crumbs
grated Greek cheese, such as kefalotiri (I was able to find Parmesan in my town...'nuf said)
Soak the eggplant slices in the salted water for 30-45 minutes. Remove them from the water and drain on paper towels. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet and cook the eggplant on each side until lightly browned. Place on a plate for later use. Wash the potatoes, poke them a few times and then cook them in the microwave until tender. Let them cool down, then peel and slice. While the potatoes are cooking, brown the ground beef in a deep skillet or Dutch oven. Drain the excess fat if you are using 80% lean meat. Add the onions and squash and cook until the vegetables are soft. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, spices, herbs, honey and wine. Simmer for 15 minutes, stirring once in a while to prevent sticking. To assemble, butter a shallow baking dish (9X13). Sprinkle bottom of dish with bread crumbs. Layer half of the eggplant on top of crumbs. Spread ½ of the meat sauce on top, then sliced potatoes, remaining eggplant followed by the last of the meat sauce. Pour the bechamel sauce on top of the meat, spreading lightly to reach all the edges evenly. Sprinkle with grated cheese. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 45 minutes.
3 Tbsp butter
¼ cup AP flour
dash freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp onion powder
3 cups evaporated milk (regular milk or even cream would be fine)
salt and pepper to taste
4 egg yolks (conveniently, my son requested a pie for later this week...the whites will become meringue)
In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Stir the flour into the butter over low heat for about a minute. Slowly whisk the milk into the roux, season and continue stirring until the sauce thickens. (Be patient, this is at least a ten minute process, if not longer). When it is thickened to your liking, add about ¼ cup of the sauce to the egg yolks to temper them (there is nothing worse than scrambled egg pieces in your white sauce!). Add the egg/sauce mixture back into the remaining sauce and heat through.
Egads! This was so good. The subtle spice in the meat sauce, the creaminess of the bechamel, the yummy flavors of the vegetables; I can see why moussaka is a must-make-at-least-once-in-your-life, classic Greek dish. Thank you Foodbuzz, for sending me to visit this delicious cuisine.