Suzonne invited me over for Moussaka. I nodded my head yes… fairly certain that she was talking about food, absolutely sure she was a stellar cook, and very clear in the fact if someone was inviting me over for homemade dinner I would be there in a heartbeat.
Truth be told (and aren’t we truth tellers around here?), I didn’t know what Moussaka was until I walked through the door and smelled a mixture of cinnamon spices and savory meat. In the kitchen she poured a cheesy bechamel sauce over a mixture of cut pasta combined with a tomato, ground lamb and spice. That’s when I did two things: I immediately googled Moussaka (spelling it incorrectly, naturally), and called the movers to start packing up my belongings because I decided I was moving in with Suzonne and her family if this was dinner here.
Moussaka is an eggplant, potato, and ground meat dish. It’s spiced with enough cinnamon and allspice to smell and taste, and sometimes studded with dried fruit. There are loads of different variations throughout Greece and Turkey and Egypt. Some layered, some not so layered, some served warm, some cold.
This version replaces potatoes with pasta and is topped with chunky tomatoes and a creamy bechamel.
These rolls are deliciously clever, fun to make, and I found myself enjoying them all week long.
Get your goods.
Here’s what you’ll need:
• Ground lamb. Now, I’m not much of a let’s-eat-lamb kind of person, but for me, lamb is critical of this dish. I’ve seen other recipes use ground beef. Do what you will. You know what you like.
• Onions and garlic. Classics.
• Eggplant. We won’t need a ton, just a few decent slices to make about 2 cups of cubed eggplant. (I roasted the rest of the eggplant for breakfast the next morning with eggs.
• Spices! Ground cinnamon and allspice, a few pinches of clove, and freshly grated nutmeg are essential. You want the aroma and taste… not too much but distinctly present.
• Diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Tomatoes every which way.
• Lasagna noodles! Oh! You know what I’ve seen on the internet? Some people make thin strips of eggplant and roll the ground lamb mixture in eggplant instead of lasagna noodles.
• Fresh parsley, salt + pepper.
We’re good. You ready?
We’ll start by salting our eggplant.
Salting sliced eggplant is a cheeky way to draw some of the moisture out of the eggplant before it is diced and sautéed. It helps the eggplant break down and caramelize faster.
I generously sprinkled kosher salt over both sides of the eggplant and let it sit for 20 minutes.
While the eggplant rests with its salt, I brown the lamb is olive oil then add chopped onions and garlic.
The mixture is sautéed to browned and softened.
While the onions do their good work, we’ll use a paper towel to wipe the salt from the eggplant and soak up the water.
The eggplant is diced into 1/2-inch cubes and added to the simmering lamb and onion mixture.
This is getting good!
Ground cinnamon. Ground allspice. Fresh nutmeg. All into the eggplanty meat.
Salt and pepper and oregano too!
By now, things smell exactly fantastic!
We’ll add a few tablespoons of tomato paste. Add some layers of intense tomato flavor to our base.
Red wine will deglaze the pan, pulling up any browned and caramelized bits from the bottom and into the mix.
Add a cup of the diced tomatoes and a few good spoonfuls of the tomato sauce to the beef mixture.
Toss it all together over heat. Add salt and pepper and taste. Season it up more until you feel cozy inside.
We’ll combine the remaining diced tomatoes and tomato sauce and season it up with oregano, salt and pepper.
Half of the tomato mixture we’ll use to coat the bottom of the pan, giving the roll ups something flavorful to rest in.
The lasagna sheets are boiled in a big ol pot to al dente. Soft, rollable, with just a little bite.
A thin layer of lamb moussaka filling is spread across the lasagna noodle.
See? You picking up what I’m putting down?
They’re called roll ups.
We’ll roll em up!
Seam side down with all the roll ups nestled and cozy inside the baking dish. I used two round baking dishes for this batch of roll ups but one batch will fit nicely into a 9×13-inch baking dish.
We’ll top the little parcels with the remaining tomato sauce.
Did you just hear the angels sing? I did. I swear I did.
To the tomato topped pasta packages we’ll add a Parmesan cheese bechamel sauce. It’s a thickened cream sauce with salty cheese added. Creamy, salty, smooth, 100% irresistible.
Like a creamy, cheesy, avalanche, with a hearty sprinkling of more cheese.
Baked to bubbling and browned.
All the insides are well cooked so we just want to meld all of the flavors.
Profoundly comforting Winter dining.
If this is outside of your box, like it was mine, join me in expanding. It really is a delicious endeavor.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound ground lamb
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 heaping cup of chopped onion)
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 heaping cups diced eggplant*
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 2 pinches ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, plus a few pinches more for the tomato sauce
- sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes, divided
- 1 14-ounce can tomato sauce, divided
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk
- sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste
- scant 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 (16 ounce) box of lasagna noodles, boiled in salted water to al dente
- 1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- To make the filling, *start by salting the eggplant. Slice the eggplant to about 1/2-inch thickness and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Generously sprinkle each slice with kosher salt. Flipping to sprinkle both sides. Set aside for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes use a paper towel to wipe off most of the salt and absorb some of the water that the eggplant releases. Cut eggplant into 1/2 inch cubes.
- In a large skillet over medium heat, add olive oil. Add the ground lamb and cook until browned through, breaking up the lamb with a spatula or spoon. If you find that there's excessive fat in the pan, drain some of it off and return the pan to the heat.
- Add onions and garlic to the pan and cook until the onions are translucent and beginning to brown, about 4 minutes. Add the diced eggplant and cook until the eggplant is broken down and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes more. Just make sure all of the elements are cooked through, tender, and browned.
- Add the spices to the pan and stir to combine.
- Stir in the tomato paste until well combined.
- Add wine to the pan and using a spoon, scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan and allow the wine to cook down for about 3 minutes.
- Add 1 cup of the diced tomatoes and 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce. Stir to combine. Taste and season with more salt and pepper as necessary.
- In a small saucepan combine the remaining diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. Add a bit more salt, pepper, and oregano to flavor it up a bit. Stir until warmed.
- To make the bechamel, melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit. Don't let it brown, but cook for about 2 minutes.
- Add the hot milk, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a simmer.
- Add salt, pepper, nutmeg, and parmesan, lower the heat, and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Set aside to assemble.
- Place a rack in the upper third of the over and preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- To assemble, spoon half of the tomato mixture into a 9x13-inch pan. Place an al dente piece of lasagna noodle on a clean counter. Spoon a thin layer of meat filling onto the noodle - about 3 or 4 tablespoons. Starting from from the end closest to you, roll the noodle into a spiraled bundle and place seam side down into the pat atop the tomato sauce.
- Continue until all of the meat filling is gone.
- Spoon the rest of the tomato sauce over the pasta bundles. Pour bechamel over the rolls and sprinkle with remaining parmesan. Bake until browned just slightly and bubbling, about 25 to 30 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Sprinkle with parsley just before serving.