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One of the things I love about food is the memories it is capable of evoking, partly through association of a particular dish with a place, and no doubt strongly driven by smell. Smells in particular seem to be a very powerful memory driver matching the power of music to do the same thing. Moussaka is one such dish that brings back pleasant memories of Greece and Athens in particular, and our young child-free days.

Salted eggplant Salt layers of eggplant in a colander and let sit for an hour. It should get weepy and emotional.

We went to Greece in 1987 as the last stage of a seven week European holiday, spending about a week and a half there. I’d been fascinated by the history for many years and wanted to go since my parents went when I was a teenager, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Acropolis and Parthenon truly are as beautiful as they look in photos, and the islands are little havens of peace with narrow streets, shady bouganvilleas and quaint little beachside restaurants. We’ve travelled a lot since, although when I look at the world map on my study wall it seems we have barely scratched the surface, but so far we’ve never made it back to Greece.

Smells divine Fry the onion with the herbs and spices until soft.

When Ms Onion and I travel and stay in foreign cities we very rarely use taxis, preferring instead to either walk or take public transport. Walking is a great way to see a city as you experience things you would probably otherwise miss or just go nowhere near, and public transport, as well as being cheap, allows you to mix it with the locals and experience something of their way of life. In Vanuatu the buses are privately owned vans, usually about 10 seater, and you just stand on the side of the road and flag one down and they will take you anywhere you want to go for about $1.50. They’re of course used mainly by the locals and so you get to share your ride with them, often surrounded by heaps of shopping or a few chooks or whatever. They also have no set route so if your destination is closest you get off first, but otherwise you get to make a few stops to let others off and on. It’s all great fun and a wonderful experience.

Simmer Simmer the sauce mix until most of the liquid is evaporated.

In Athens we stayed in a hotel several kilometres from the centre of the city and, perhaps more relevantly to this story, about the same distance from the Plaka, the old central part where many of the eateries are. While in Athens we would just walk down there each evening, and being on foot we soon found a shortcut that took us through the red light district. The ‘girls’ got used to seeing us and would give us a wave and a called out greeting each night, but my vivid memory is sitting in a little rooftop restaurant with a view of the Acropolis eating moussaka. I don’t recall whether the moussaka was particularly good, although presumably I would remember if it was very bad, but the location and atmosphere always comes back to me when I make and eat this classic Greek dish.

Bechamel1 Make the béchamel sauce and grate in some nutmeg.

Bechamel2 If you make the béchamel in advance lay some clingwrap on top to prevent a skin forming.

I like to add a base layer of potato to my moussaka, something I was led to believe the French do, which could be rubbish, but in any event like bacon there aren’t too many things that don’t benefit from the addition of potato. I’ll remain non-committal in the recipe about the correct sequence for the layers and leave you to settle that argument, but in the end it doesn’t matter that much because it all gets covered up with béchamel sauce.

Potatoes Cook the eggplant and potato in the oven until softened. I like the solitary eggplant slice in this photo – it reminds me of when you see big flocks of corellas and there is a solitary galah in amongst them.

When my younger son was a teenager he went to stay at a friends place and the boys mother needed to make béchamel sauce but hadn’t done it before and was a bit unsure. “I’ll make it for you” piped up Al, who had learned his craft making it for me for Tuna Mornay and was a dab hand at it. You can’t go wrong teaching your children to cook. Making béchamel can seem tricky but if there’s one piece of advice I can give that makes it easy is remove it from the heat at the stages of adding the flour and milk and the process won’t get away from you. Most recipes tell you to heat the milk but I’ve never bothered. Béchamel is one of those basic essential recipes that pleasingly can be remembered with a simple number sequence – 2, 2, 300 (or 1, 1, 150 if you prefer normalised units). That is, 2 tablespoons butter, 2 tablespoons plain flour and 300ml milk. Increase or decrease as appropriate.

Layers Layered up and ready for the oven.

At the top I called this recipe vegetarian or not, and the change is very simple if you want a meat version. Just add in the mince and brown it after softening the onion. In the vego version just add the chickpeas and lentils at the same point but there’s no need for browning obviously. For the herbs and spices, Ms Onion always accuses me of being heavy-handed with the cinnamon because it’s one of my favourites, but the 12 teaspoon given here is to her taste. If you like cinnamon chuck in a bit extra while your significant other is not looking. Nutmeg is another delightful spice and I buy the whole kernels and use a microplane grater to add it on demand.

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Ready to eat Bubbling and ready to eat

Vegetarian Moussaka

Cooking: 1 hour 15 minutes
Serves: 4

  • 2 large eggplant, cut into 5mm-thick slices
  • salt
  • 500g potatoes
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra to drizzle on eggplant and potatoes
  • 1 brown onion, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh chopped oregano leaves (or about 13 teaspoon dried)
  • 12 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 14 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 400g can chickpeas (or 1kg lamb or beef mince)
  • 400g can lentils (omit if using the mince)
  • 1 cup (250 ml) red wine or vegetable stock
  • 400 g can diced tomatoes
  • 1 cup grated parmesan
Béchamel sauce
  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine
  • 3 tablespoons plain flour
  • 450ml milk
  • Freshly ground pepper and grated nutmeg, to taste
  • Put a layer of the eggplant slices in a colander and sprinkle generously with salt. Add another layer and repeat, then let sit for 1 hour. Cut the potatoes into thin slices (peel them if you prefer – I don’t bother).
  • Meanwhile to make the sauce, heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat and cook the onion, oregano, cinnamon and nutmeg until the onion is soft. Add the chickpeas, lentils, wine and tomatoes (if using mince brown it at this point prior to adding the wine and tomatoes). Simmer for 25-30 minutes until thickened and add some salt and pepper to taste (go easy on the salt as the eggplant has already been salted).
  • Preheat the oven to 200°C. Rinse the eggplant slices well to remove the salt and pat dry with paper towel. Arrange in a single layer on an oven tray lined with baking paper and drizzle with olive oil. Do the same with the potatoes, then place both trays in the oven for ten to 15 minutes until softened and starting to brown.
  • Reduce oven to 190°C. Put the potato slices in a layer in the bottom of a baking dish, then add layers of half the eggplant, parmesan and sauce (no order implied) and repeat.
  • To make the béchamel , melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Remove from the heat and stir in the flour with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth, then put back over the heat and stir for a couple of minutes.
  • Remove from the heat again and add about 50ml of the milk and stir vigorously to ensure no lumps – the mixture will thicken up considerably. Continue to add small amounts of milk and stirring until it gets liquid enough to just add the rest of the milk. Add pepper and nutmeg. place back over the heat and stir continuously until the mixture boils and thickens.
  • Spread the béchamel sauce evenly over the moussaka. Sprinkle with extra cheese and bake for 40-45 minutes or until golden. If you can stand to wait let it sit for about 10 minutes before serving.