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Mar 15, 2011
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Wine With . . . Lisa’s Moussaka

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

Our friend Lisa invited us to her house for dinner last week.  “If you bring some wines I’ll make moussaka,” she said.  “We can see what goes best with the dish.”  And so, one night last week we headed off to her house in Annapolis with a case of mixed wines in the trunk of our car, including a couple of Greek selections.  Moussaka, after all, is an example of classic Greek cuisine, something Euripides, say, might have dined on.  Isn’t it?

Well, no.  As we’ve subsequently learned, this “classic” dish didn’t even exist as we know it today until the 20th century.  According to an article by Aglaia Kemezi, who writes about food in the Atlantic magazine, even the word “moussaka” isn’t Greek--it apparently comes from musaqqâ, an Arabic word for “moisture.”  Elizabeth David popularized moussaka in her much loved Book of Mediterranean Food, which was published in 1950.  In her original recipe she called for a topping of yogurt mixed with egg yolk, and her lighter summer version has no topping at all.  Since the standard béchamel topping influences the type of wine best suited to the dish, perhaps we’ll persuade Lisa to make that variation on the theme some time when the weather warms up so that we can determine which wines go best with summer moussaka. 

 Lisa’s Moussaka

Serves six

3 eggplants, peeled and cut lengthwise into slices ½ inch thick

Salt

¼ cup olive oil

3-4 waxy potatoes such as Yukon Gold, peeled and cut into slices ¼ inch thick

1 pound lean ground beef

Freshly ground pepper

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, divided use

1/4 teaspoon each oregano, basil and thyme

¼ cup minced parsley

1 8-ounce can tomato sauce

½ cup red wine

1 egg, beaten

½ cup butter

6 tablespoons flour

4 cups milk

1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Lay the slices of eggplant on paper towels, sprinkle lightly with salt, and set aside for 30 minutes to draw out the moisture.  Preheat the oven to 450°.  Brush the eggplant slices with olive oil, and arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Bake for about 8-10 minutes, or until moderately soft.  Brush the potato slices with oil, and bake for about 10 minutes or until they have softened.

Place a large skillet over medium heat.  Add the ground beef, salt and pepper to taste, the onions, and garlic.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the beef is browned, then add the spices, herbs and parsley.  Pour in the tomato sauce and wine, and mix well.  Simmer for 20 minutes.  Remove the pan from the heat.  When the mixture has cooled whisk in the beaten eggs.

To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a large pan.  Add the flour and whisk until smooth.  Pour in the milk and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens.  Season to taste with salt, pepper, and the remaining nutmeg.

To assemble the moussaka, grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish and arrange the sliced potatoes in a single layer on the bottom.  Cover with half the eggplant slices and sprinkle ½ cup Parmesan over the top.  Spread the meat mixture over the eggplant and sprinkle with another ½ cup Parmesan, then add the remaining eggplant and another ½ cup Parmesan.  Pour the béchamel sauce over the top and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. 

The moussaka may be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator until ready to cook.  To bake it, preheat the oven to 350°.  Bake for an hour, or until the mixture is hot and bubbling. 

 Moussaka is traditionally served at room temperature, but if you want to serve it hot at least let it sit for 5 minutes or so before dishing it up.

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We assumed, incorrectly as it turns out, that Lisa’s moussaka would be much more of a red wine dish than a white wine one.  The wines we took down to her house included only one white.  It turned out, though, to be one of best matches, leading us to suspect that a range of other full-bodied whites would work equally well.  The dish’s inherent sweetness (due in no small measure to the cinnamon and nutmeg) would help enhance a rich white pairing.  It certainly did so with the reds we liked best, all of which were marked by bright, juicy fruit, without excessive tannin or astringency.  So no matter whether you choose a rd or a white, look for a fine with full fruit flavor, and perhaps just a hint of sweetness of its own.

Selection

 

Approx. Price

Comments

 

Banfi, Toscana (Italy) “Centine” 2007

(Imported by Banfi Vintners)

 

 

$13

 

A blend of Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot, this is a soft, supple red, marked by bright cherry and red berry fruit flavors, and an enticing hint of spice in the finish.

 

 

Byron, Santa Maria Valley (California) Chardonnay “Nielson Vineyard” 2007

 

 

$27

 

A rich, full-bodied Chardonnay, marked by predominantly citrus but some tropical fruit flavors, and a rich, almost buttery texture, this white wine more than held its own with this equally rich dish.  In fact, it starred, giving the combination a lift of energy.  As noted above, we’d now have no compunction about opening other rich, ripe whites with this dish.

 

La Crema, Monterey (California) Pinot Noir 2009

 

 

$24

 

Very youthful, and perhaps too sweet when sipped on its own, this wine paired well with the dish, its lush texture in particular making for a seamless match.

 

 

Robert Oatley, King Valley (Australia) Tempranillo 2009

(Imported by Robert Oatley Vineyards)

 

 

$20

 

Bright and fresh, this medium-weight red was admired by everyone at Lisa’s supper table.  It offered bright cherry fruit enhanced by a lively, slightly spicy finish, and so complemented the moussaka very nicely.

 

 

Red on Black, Nemea (Greece) Agiorgitiko 2009

(Imported by Tirreme Imports)

 

 

$14

 

A sure-fire winner because of the quality of the wine in the bottle and not just its origin, this light-bodied red was beautifully balanced.  It offers tart cherry fruit flavors, and gains intriguing complexity from secondary notes that hint at dried herbs and savory spice.  When we got up to head home, it was the one completely empty bottle on the table.