It’s a fine line, when you cook, between success and failure. I am always surprised by how tipping the balance in a dish can so easily transform it from delectable to inedible. How many times have you oversalted or undercooked a dish? When did you last lament wasting a fistful of pine nuts or a beautiful piece of fish, just because of a careless extra minute or two in the pan?
Eggplants are particularly prone to such disasters. I know some pretty confident cooks who, after a couple of memorable failures, wouldn’t touch them with a pole. It’s not that they are that hard to cook (though they do take a bit of practice to get right). It has more to do with how unmitigated these failures are. A limp, grey, rubbery, undercooked chunk of eggplant could easily put you off for life. Likewise, a slice that has spent too much time in a frying pan with oil that wasn’t hot enough, going dark and bitter and terribly fatty, wouldn’t turn anyone into a fan.
On the other hand, well-prepared eggplant — cooked through and nicely browned on the outside, full of flavour after absorbing just the right amount of oil or sauce — is heavenly. Balanced with other components, which add texture and cut through its natural richness, an eggplant can turn into the most thrilling vegetable around. I can think of countless examples, but the one that best illustrates this point is moussaka, the eggplant-and-meat dish from Greece, with variations across the Balkans and the Middle East.
A good moussaka has all the qualities that allow eggplant to shine: vegetables that are thoroughly cooked but keep some texture; a layer of browned lamb for meatiness and texture; a cover of creamy bechamel; and enough tomato acidity to offset the richness. A bad one — well, it can have a lasting effect. I can tell you this with confidence because I was unfortunate enough to experience this last summer, and it happened in Greece, of all places.
It was while I was staying with my family in a house we rented on one of the Cyclades islands. The moussaka in question was bought in a little taverna by the side of the road, which also sold crates of fresh home-grown vegetables. The picture-perfect scene was amplified by the warmth of the operation: a grandmother in the kitchen, a mother waiting on tables and selling vegetables, and a young son helping to fill up the shopping bags.
This was so promising, we didn’t even bother getting anything else for dinner, apart from the obligatory Greek salad. This salad was all we ended up having. The moussaka we so wanted to love was left behind, quietly, on everyone’s plates; bits of unctuous eggplant and tiny mince drenched in a mixture of runny bechamel, lamb fat and tomato sauce. The balance was all wrong, and no amount of good will, or culinary skill, could have saved it.
This is the first time I’ve revisited moussaka since. My recipe, which is loosely inspired by that dish, is safer than the original, particularly if you harbour a bit of eggplant phobia. Cooking all the elements in one roasting pan, though not standard, will allow you to judge your progress as you go, addressing imbalances when you need to. Follow the instructions, keep your eyes open, taste on occasion, and you’ll find yourself firmly placed on the road to success.
Recipe: Eggplant, Lamb and yoghurt Casserole
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Total time: 2 hours
For the eggplant and lamb mixture:
2 or 3 eggplants (aubergines) (about 1 1/2 pounds/680 grams), cut into 1-inch/3-centimeter cubes
1 pound/450 grams ground lamb (lamb mince)
1 medium onion, halved and thinly sliced
1/2 cup/15 grams fresh oregano leaves, roughly chopped
1/3 cup/80 millilitres olive oil
1/4 cup/65 grams tomato paste
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 (14-ounce/400-gram) can whole, peeled plum tomatoes with their juices
3 cups/700 millilitres chicken stock
1/3 cup/20 grams roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the topping:
2 cups/450 grams plain Greek yoghurt
3 large egg yolks
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose (plain) flour
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 lightly packed cups/70 grams finely grated Parmesan
1 cup/100 grams roughly crumbled feta
Scant 1/3 cup/40 grams pine nuts
2 packed tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit/240 degrees Celsius.
2. Add the eggplant, lamb, onion, oregano, oil, tomato paste, garlic, cinnamon, allspice, red-pepper flakes, 1 3/4 teaspoons salt and a good grind of pepper to a 10-by-13-inch/26-by-34-centimeter (or similar) roasting pan (tin) and mix well to combine. Bake until the mixture is well browned, stirring twice throughout and breaking apart the meat with a spoon, 30 to 35 minutes.
3. Remove from the oven and continue to break apart the meat very well (don’t worry if you break apart some of the eggplant, too). Add the canned tomatoes with their juices, lightly crushing the tomatoes by hand. Stir in the chicken stock and parsley then return to the oven and bake for another 35 minutes, stirring twice throughout, until the sauce is thick and rich and the eggplant is very soft. Remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature up to 475 degrees Fahrenheit/250 degrees Celsius.
4. While the casserole is in the oven, prepare the topping: Whisk together the yoghurt, yolks, flour, garlic and half the Parmesan with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a good grind of pepper. Once ready, spoon the yoghurt mixture over the lamb and eggplant, gently spreading to cover. Top evenly with the remaining Parmesan, feta, pine nuts, parsley and red-pepper flakes.
5. Bake until golden and bubbling, 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool for about 15 minutes before serving.