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Moosewood’s country moussaka

By Ann | May 6, 2014

Moosewood's country moussaka

I’ve mentioned this before: I have a thing for casseroles. It started in grade school, when I read a bunch of books set in the 1950s—in particular, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, which was about a twinkle-eyed, hump-backed woman who lives in an upside-down house and finds creative solutions to children’s problems. (For example: one little girl hates taking baths. Mrs P-W suggests her parents let her loll in her own filth until she’s built up a half-inch rind of grime on her skin—whereupon the parents sneak into her room at night and sprinkle her with radish seeds. Plants sprout, the little girl freaks out, and bath-time becomes regular :)  The kids in these books were always eating casseroles for dinner. They hated them. But for me—raised on a steady diet of Chinese food—casseroles sounded like the most exotic and delicious food in the world. I hardly knew what they were, yet I longed to try them.

My casserole curiosity followed me—unsatisfied—all the way to my very first apartment in New York. One of the first things I bought for my kitchen (if that’s what you call a stove wedged in the corner of a studio) was a casserole dish. White and sturdy, it has now survived seven moves (I just counted), traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard, across oceans and continents. Was ten dollars ever better spent? I filled it with lasagna, eggplant parmesan, and macaroni and cheese, but the bubbling, golden-crusted casseroles of my dreams evaded me.

Moosewood Restaurant Favorites 2

If we were conducting a word association test, right now you’d be shouting “cream-of-mushroom soup!” Yes, casseroles get a bad rap, typically laced as they are with Campbell’s. But recently I’ve noticed that the homemade versions have been making a comeback. A few weeks ago, this New York Times article offered three unusual recipes (as well as one for great quick pickles). And a few months ago, a friend gave  me a copy of a new cookbook, Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, which has a whole chapter on from-scratch casseroles.

Moosewood is synonymous with vegetarian food, and I love their recipes because they’re like the best comfort food: simple, satisfying, unafraid to add butter, cream, or cheese when the occasion is right. This book gathers the most requested recipes from their restaurant in Ithaca, NY, where I will eat one day, come hell or high water. I have enjoyed orange-scented Cuban black beans, Rumbledethumps (a cheesy broccoli-laced version of bubble and squeak, which—I hesitate to confess—paired beautifully with a pork chop), made two batches of the mushroom piroshki, and can’t wait to try the classic tofu burgers. But my favorite recipe so far has been this country moussaka, which is one of those magical dishes that turns ordinary ingredients into something more special then their individual parts.

Moosewood's country moussaka

There are slices of roasted eggplant and courgette, a spiced tomato sauce, a sprinkle of raw couscous—which cooks among the layers and adds almost a meaty texture—generous crumbles of feta, and a crowning cap of béchamel. I’ll be honest, all those elements involve a bit—okay, a lot—of extra work. But none of it’s very difficult or fiddly and you can make most of them a few days in advance, before assembling.

Before I leave you to this recipe, may I end on a pedantic note? I was curious about the history of casseroles, so I did some research in the Penguin Companion to Food. Though the word “casserole” has been used to refer to a ladle, or pan (as in French), it originates from a classical Greek term for “cup.” Greek! Could a casserole of moussaka be more apt?

Moosewood's country moussaka leftovers

Moosewood’s Country Moussaka
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Favorites

Serves 6-8

3 lbs eggplant
1 1/2 lbs zucchini
Olive oil
8 oz feta cheese
4 tablespoons raw couscous
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Tomato sauce:
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili
Salt and pepper to taste

Béchamel sauce:
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten

Prepare the vegetables: Pre-heat the oven to 400ºF. Slice the eggplant and zucchini into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Brush them lightly with olive oil. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, arrange the slices in a single layer, and bake until tender, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. In a saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, stirring until fragrant, then the bell peppers, cooking until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, cinnamon and crushed chili. Simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened slightly. Taste and season.

Prepare the béchamel sauce: In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk, and cook until the sauce has thickened and is starting to bubble around the edges. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg, salt, and beaten eggs.

Assemble the casserole: Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Grease a ceramic baking dish. Pour half the tomato sauce into the baking dish. Layer the eggplant slices. Sprinkle over half the feta cheese and 2 tablespoons of couscous. Cover with the zucchini slices, then the remainder of the feta cheese and couscous. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered until golden and bubbly, 50-60 minutes. If you bake this ahead of time, cover the dish loosely with foil and rewarm in a 350ºF oven, for 45-50 minutes.

Moosewood's country moussaka

Topics: Casseroles, Cooking the Books, New York City, Recettes | 13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Moosewood’s country moussaka”

  1. Emma Says:
    May 7th, 2014 at 3:00 am

    Oh you took me back to my childhood, my dad made a mean moussaka! I really need to try this vegie version though, it looks wonderful and I think I’d prefer it these days (and casseroles are one of those classics aren’t they?).

    Also, that children’s book sounds awesome!

  2. Ann Says:
    May 7th, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Thanks, Emma! This is perfect for those Aussie fall nights. I hope you try it! :)

  3. Marian Says:
    May 7th, 2014 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you not only for the recipe, but for sharing Mrs, Piggle Wiggle! I loved/still love reading her…especially the first book! It’s the best! I might just have to pull it out again tonight:-) That is, after I make my shopping list so I can try the moussaka this weekend. Merci beaucoup.

  4. Linda Chudej Says:
    May 8th, 2014 at 1:03 am

    For me, tuna casserole conjures up many wonderful memories of my Mom & the meals she served when I was growing up in the ’50’s. I loved her tuna casserole! I’ve never been able to duplicate it even using her recipe. I suspect it was as much being at the kitchen table eating with Mom & Dad that made it taste so good as it was the recipe. Memories of the foods I had as a child are treasured. Mom liked to cook “on schedule.” If it was Saturday we were having chili dogs. On Sunday we had roast & potatoes (my grandmother’s recipe). Monday night we had chicken fried steak & mashed potatoes. Each night we knew what to expect! I’m surprised I didn’t weigh 200 pounds in high school.

  5. Kasha @ The FarmGirl Cooks Says:
    May 8th, 2014 at 1:11 am

    Oh, my, this looks amazing! I’ve always wanted a recipe for moussaka that wasn’t quite so heavy and this looks perfect!

    Thanks for sharing this!

  6. Lindy Says:
    May 8th, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    Chicken a la king. St Catherine’s boarding school c1977, Alas boarding schook kitchens just ruined the enjoyment of casseroles for me. But funnily enough the phrase I associate with casseroles now is ‘great, I’d done some work in advance and I don’t need to come in from the garden early to cook!’

    But texture. Crunch? How do you bring that to a casserole? Tricky.

  7. Christine Says:
    May 8th, 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Ann I read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle to my second graders this year. They loved it. I really enjoy your writings about food. Your books are great!

  8. Diane Lewis Says:
    May 8th, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    Cassoulet in France. Absolutely delicious!! But go there to order it. It is too complicated to make in the States.

  9. Kim Says:
    May 8th, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    my mother still makes casseroles of all sorts – breakfast, lunch and dinner. And both of my girls love Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle!

  10. Mary Ann Putnam Says:
    May 9th, 2014 at 4:09 am

    Sounds yummy. I also adored Mrs Piggle Wiggle — great solutions to bringing up difficult children!! Casseroles can be the best for easy entertaining.

  11. Ann Says:
    May 9th, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Marian — I’m happy to know I’m not the only one who occasionally dips into children’s books :) If you make the moussaka, I hope you’ll let me know how it turns out!

    Linda — I love your mom’s cooking schedule! What night was tuna noodle casserole? :) I’d love to try a schedule once the baby is older… maybe a once-a-week spaghetti night!

    Kasha — While I can’t quite call this moussaka “light,” I will say it is utterly delicious!

    Lindy — Does crunch come in the form of breadcrumbs, potato chips, etc sprinkled on top? Alas, that can also make everything too dry. Martha Stewart tops her macaroni and cheese with torn bits of white bread drizzled with butter — an effective and decadent crunch! Btw, I love chicken à la king / turkey tetrazzini (what’s the difference?) — I want to make that soon!

  12. Ann Says:
    May 9th, 2014 at 4:26 pm

    Christine — It warms my heart to know that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle lives on!!! Thanks for your sweet message — it made my day.

    Diane — Cassoulet is indeed a PROJECT :) But it’s worth it!

    Kim — Something tells me YOU might have grown up dreaming of Chinese food! :) #grassisalwaysgreener

    Mary Ann — I’m so glad you mentioned casseroles and entertaining! This moussaka would be great for a dinner party. I love make-ahead meals.

  13. CK Says:
    May 11th, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    The Greek lesson is almost as delicious as the moussaka — thanks so much for the edible etymology!

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