We had planned to attend a family wedding in France this year before the current virus arrived and turned the world upside down.
Like so many, our lives have been changed and the only travel to Europe I will do this year is in my mind. As it turns out, travelling in your mind has many advantages. No airport queues, no transpacific long-haul flights, no exchange rates and if you are imaginative, you can relive and even create new overseas experiences in the comfort of your home.
You may think that isolation has caught up with me and I have gone completely mental, but cooking is certainly a way of reinforcing and broadening your cultural horizons. Having had our daughters at home with us recently, my eyes were opened to the way they have been living through what they cooked. Almost always fresh vegetables cooked with ingredients I rarely use. In fact, I had to buy several pantry staples such as tamari, tofu, miso, sesame oil, vegetarian stock, soba noodles, mirin, rice vinegar and chickpeas to name a few. They would then shop very frequently for fresh vegetables to produce incredibly healthy, vibrant looking modern meals.
One of the ingredients we were using in abundance was eggplant. My daughters are likely to incorporate eggplant into a chickpea curry or marinated teriyaki eggplant served with rice. Predictably I suppose, my go to recipe for eggplant is moussaka. When I first travelled to Europe, I spent some weeks in Greece and almost daily would have a Greek salad accompanied by either fresh fish or moussaka.
So last week I “travelled” back to Greece and tried to recreate those sunny carefree days of the mid-eighties. With some help from George Calombaris (who else would you turn to for a moussaka recipe?), I think I managed to create a little bit of Mykonos in the back yard of Paraparap. The only ingredient conspicuous by its absence was a blazing Aegean sun, but if I could replicate that, I would also cure the world of our current malady. Good travels, wherever you may go.
2 large red capsicums, halved lengthways, seeds removed
2 tablespoon olive oil
3 large eggplants, cut lengthways into 5mm slices
500g minced pork
500g minced lamb
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 tins crushed tomatoes
120g kefalograviera cheese or parmesan, coarsely grated
1 onion, studded with 4 cloves and 1 bay leaf
100g unsalted butter
75g plain flour
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Place capsicums on foil lined baking trays and grill on the highest oven shelf until the skins are blistered black. Pull the sides of the foil to the centre over the capsicum and fold to enclose it completely. Leave to steam for ten minutes, then peel and discard the skin and finely chop the flesh. Set aside.
Meanwhile, heat a drizzle of olive oil on a cast-iron grill-plate over high heat until smoking. Working in batches, grill the eggplant slices for thirty seconds on each side or until both sides have clear char marks. Set aside. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan over high heat and cook the mince, stirring for five minutes until the meat is brown. Add the cumin, cinnamon, oregano and cardamom, then, stirring continuously, cook for another five minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper and set aside.
Heat remaining olive oil in a large heavy-based frying pan over medium heat and cook the onion and garlic for four minutes or until soft and translucent. Add the capsicum and tomato and bring to a simmer, cook for twenty minutes, stirring occasionally. Add to the mince mixture, then simmer over low heat for fifteen minutes. Season to taste.
To make the béchamel, place the milk and clove-studded onion in a small heavy-based saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Melt the butter in a non-stick saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring continuously, for one minute. Strain the milk, discarding the onion, then add 60ml of the hot milk at a time to the butter and flour mixture, whisking continuously; when all the milk is added, the sauce should be thick. Season the sauce to taste with salt, stir and set aside.
To assemble, place one-third of the meat mixture in a large baking dish, top with one-third of the eggplant, then repeat the layering process until all the eggplant and meat are used. Spread the warm béchamel sauce evenly over the surface and sprinkle with the kefalograviera or parmesan. Bake the moussaka for thirty minutes or until heated through and golden brown on top.