We’re in the throes of harvest here in the Willamette Valley. It is somewhat comforting that in these crazy times we’re living in when every week seems to bring fresh bad news, that harvest comes around every October, ready or not. Those grapes are ripe and they need to be picked and turned into wine, no matter what.
And so we switch into overdrive and get it done. A crew is assembled, the equipment is readied, and I start planning my menus and cooking up a storm.
When we founded our winery in 2001, we pledged to take the absolute best care of our staff as possible. And during harvest, as centuries of winemakers before us have done, that includes feeding our extra large crew every night. At the end of a long working day, the harvest crew heads over to our house, often cold and wet, for a hearty warm dinner. It’s that moment when we all sit down, raise a glass and break bread together that we remember why we chose this crazy life.
It’s times like these when only comfort food will do. As you can see here, there’s plenty of that on the menu. This year I started right off with Moussaka, because the eggplant at the Farmer’s Market was gorgeous and it was just the kind of thing we needed.
While there are several steps to making Moussaka – this is exactly what we mean when we talk about slow food – I think you’ll find that the resulting dish is well worth the effort. If you have an afternoon available, and you’re longing for the therapy of hands-on cooking this is the dish for you. Once it’s done, you can gather your people close and enjoy.
- 2 medium yellow onions, chopped
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 pounds ground lamb
- Salt and Pepper
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 28 ounce can chopped tomatoes, preferably flame roasted
- 1 heaping tablespoon tomato paste
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
- Pinch of ground allspice
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups hot milk
- Salt and Pepper
- Pinch of grated nutmeg
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
- 3 globe eggplants (about 1 1/2 pounds total), unpeeled and cut into 1/3 inch slices
- Olive oil
- Lay the eggplant slices on sheet pans and brush with olive oil. Either grill the eggplant over a medium flame or put it under the broiler, until golden and soft. Set aside.
- Make the meat sauce. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the lamb, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Cook, continuing to break it up, until there is has browned and there is no more pink, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the lamb from the pan to a plate and set that side. Pour off the fat remaining in the pan. Add a couple of tablespoons of water or wine to the pan and, over medium heat, scrape any browned bits in the bottom of the pan. Add this to the meat.
- Heat the olive oil in the pan over medium heat and add the onion. Cook until tender, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until just fragrant, about 1 minute, then stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste, the browned meat, the spices, the sugared add the bay leaf. Add about half a teaspoon of salt. Stir it all together and let it simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the liquid is nearly gone. Stir in the parsley and set aside.
- Meanwhile make the Béchamel sauce. Melt the butter in a medium pan. Add the flour and stir over low heat for a few minutes, until it starts to small a little nutty. Add the hot milk a little at a time, whisking vigorously each time until it starts to bubble. You don't want any lumps, so whisk them out if they're there. Simmer over low heat, stirring, until the sauce thickens. Add about a teaspoon salt, 1/2 a teaspoon ground pepper and a pinch of nutmeg and stir. In a small bowl, beat the eggs slightly. Add about 1/4 cup of the hot white sauce to the eggs and whisk to incorporate, then pour the egg mixture all back in to the pot of white sauce, whisking vigorously. After this, do not allow the sauce to boil again. Add the cheese and stir until melted.
- Assemble the Moussaka. Line the bottom of a 9 x 13" baking dish with half the eggplant slices. Spread all of the meat sauce over top, then layer the other half of the eggplant over that. Pour the béchamel sauce over all.
- Bake, uncovered, in a preheated 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes until golden. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving hot directly from the dish.
- If you like you can make this in stages. The meat sauce can be made up to a day or two in advance. The eggplant can be prepared early in the day you're going to assemble it. The white sauce should be made and added just before baking.