Recipes are made to be broken, and I broke this one good. Moussaka, in case you’ve never had the privilege, is something of a shepherd’s pie indigenous to the Mediterranean region. The name comes to us from the Arabic word for a chilled salad, though most Americans are more familiar with the Greek variation of the dish which is served hot.
Versions of moussaka are served in countries ranging from Greece and Turkey to the Middle East to North Africa. The dish is seasoned with cinnamon, among other spices, which harken back to the days of the Ottoman Empire and the related spice trade. It has been said that moussaka is a national dish of the Ottoman Empire, but that may be an overstatement, since the versions of moussaka are so varied they bear little resemblance to one another.
And what is this dish? Well, the Greek version is a three-layered casserole, with cooked sliced eggplant on the bottom, seasoned ground lamb in the middle, and a cheesy sauce Béchamel on top. Other versions may employ potatoes, zucchini, or other types of ground meat. I had been reading online recipes for the dish when certain posters were disclaiming this recipe or that with such epithets as “This is not moussaka, potatoes are a New World food and would never be used…” That was just enough motivation for me to make my anti-recipe-Nazi moussaka. Besides, I was already thinking about how cinnamon and cumin would pair with pears… what to do?
Pear and Lamb Moussaka
Ingredients for 8 Servings
- 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
- 2 cups onions, chopped finely
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 lbs ground lamb
- 2 teas ground cinnamon
- 2 teas ground cumin
- 1 teas ground coriander
- 1/2 teas curry powder
- 1/2 teas sea salt
- 1/4 teas ground black pepper
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/2 cup fruity red wine
- 1/2 cup water
- 4 ea Red Bartlett or Anjou pears
- 1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
- 2 cups cooked mashed potatoes
- 8 oz feta cheese, finely crumbled
- 1/2 teas paprika or dried oregano
In 1 tbsp of oil, sauté the chopped onions over medium-high heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic for 1 minute, then add meat, breaking up into small bits. Continue cooking until meat is no longer pink. Drain away extra fat from the meat, if desired. Stir in the six seasonings and tomato products. Bring back up to a simmer, add wine and water, then simmer for about 10 minutes to slowly thicken mixture.
Meanwhile, peel and core the pears. Slice into 1/4 inch slices. Coat a 9x13x2 glass or 3 qt. pottery baking dish with 1 tbsp of olive oil. Sprinkle with half of the bread crumbs. Arrange the pear slices over the bread crumbs and top with the remaining bread crumbs.
Prepare the topping by heating leftover mashed potatoes and stirring in the feta cheese. Add a little milk or water, if needed, to loosen potato-cheese mixture to the consistency of applesauce. As an alternative, make 2 cups of instant potatoes according to manufacturer’s directions, adding the feta cheese to the boiling water just before adding the dried potatoes.
Assembly. Spread the cooked lamb-tomato mixture over the pears. Spread the potato-cheese mixture on next. Sprinkle the top with paprika or dried oregano. Bake at 325°F for about 45 minutes, or until juices are bubbling up around the outside and the topping is golden brown. (If you’re really scared of the pears, you can revert back to a more traditional version by substituting two medium eggplants, peeled, sliced, and oven-roasted.)
Serve by itself or with rice and sautéed seasonal vegetables. My beverage recommendations here normally veer towards wine, such as an Argentinian Malbec or a Spanish Tempranillo. Beer will work very well, too. You can’t go wrong with a malty brown dubbel or bockbier. I especially recommend the Moretti La Rossa!
Epilogue. Breaking with recipe traditions opens up whole new doors of flavor. It reminds me of the time I had a business lunch with a group of suits. It had been my job to source the restaurant, and I chose Donna Nordin’s Cafe Terra Cotta. CTC was one of the greats in the New Southwestern style.
One of the guests asked, “What’s good here, Matt?” I replied, “They’re famous for their goat cheese stuffed prawns.” And he says “Why would anyone ever stuff a prawn?” He had a steak. I had the prawns. The business deal never materialized. Food is the great lie detector. Cheers! TPJ