Spring Moussaka, Two Ways

a baking dish of spring moussakaIt’s always a gamble, planting seeds in late fall in hopes of having a harvest in early spring. In the middle of last August, I sowed three long rows of Scarlet Nantes and White Satin carrots. By September, they were growing well; that is, until the deer came along and chomped them to the ground. After that, I kept them out of sight under fabric row cover.

over-wintered carrots in spring

over-wintered carrots in spring

And when the top few inches of soil finally froze, I spread a layer of straw over them several inches deep.

Timing the straw-spreading is tricky. Too early, and the ground doesn’t freeze until deep winter, creating a cozy home with a well-stocked pantry for voles and mice. Spread it too late, and you wind up with carrot-sicles that turn to mush in the spring thaw.

Last week, when the snow was finally off the garden, I peeked under the straw; this year I got lucky. There they were, all three rows of frost-sweetened carrots, nary a one nibbled by rodents. In another part of the garden, the parsnips, too, have been spared this year, and are super-sweet and tender. As soon as they begin to sprout they’ll grow woody, so now is the time to eat them. Under a glass-windowed cold frame, the radicchio and endive I cut to the ground last autumn, are sending up fresh growth from their roots and will be ready to harvest in late April or early May.

In my unheated greenhouse the mâche and kale that have been providing us with salads all winter are starting to bloom, to the delight of hungry honey bees, and will soon go to seed. I’ve begun to harvest the cold-loving greens I seeded inside in January and planted outside in February, along with the radishes and pea shoots I direct-seeded two months ago. Here and there, volunteers are sprouting up – parsley and fennel, lettuce and poppies, red shiso and dill.

In the greenhouse, too, the perennials, like dandelion greens, rhubarb, Red Venture celery, chives, and chervil, that took a little time off during the coldest weather, are now are big enough to pick. At this time of year we can also harvest small heads of cauliflower and broccoli, planted as sturdy small plants in September. These die back almost to their roots in winter, and miraculously reappear as soon as we get more than ten hours of light a day.

purple cauliflower in early spring

purple cauliflower, grown in an unheated greenhouse over the winter

Looking for a way to use up my carrot and parsnip harvest, I found a recipe in Leanne Kitchen’s beautiful cookbook, Turkey: More than 100 Recipes with Tales from the Road, for a moussaka made with veal and rich in roasted carrots. Because I have a mixed crew to feed in my house, some vegetarians, some carnivores, I decided to riff on Kitchen’s recipe, making two baking dishes, one with fresh purple cauliflower instead of meat, and another in which locally raised grass-fed beef replaced the veal. And because I had parsnips to work with as well as carrots, I used both.

The results were delicious – the creamy layer of lemon-scented béchamel sauce is a perfect foil for the tomato and roasted vegetable enriched bottom layer. Too, this dish, though it takes some time to put together and is probably best saved for a weekend project, is not only crammed with the vegetables we’re all supposed to be eating more of, but is also economical to make. The pound of ground beef in the meat version will feed six people easily, and cauliflower, even if it isn’t locally grown, is abundant and inexpensive at this time of year.

If you don’t want to make both versions, feel free to cut the béchamel and roasted vegetable recipes in half, and use whichever base, meat or cauliflower, you prefer.

Two Spring Moussakas

  • Lemon Béchamel Sauce (recipe below)
  • Roasted Carrots and Parsnips (recipe below)

    spring moussaka

    spring moussaka

  • Meat Moussaka Base (recipe below)
  • Cauliflower Moussaka Base (recipe below)
  • olive oil for the bottom of the baking pans

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use about 1 tablespoon of oil to grease the bottoms and sides of two baking dishes (anything approximating a 13 inch oval or an 8×11 inch rectangular dish will work).

Pour the meat base into one dish and the cauliflower base into the other dish. Spread them out evenly. Sprinkle half of the roasted vegetables over the meat base and the other half of the roasted vegetables over the cauliflower base. Spread half the béchamel over the meat and roasted vegetables and the other half of the béchamel over the cauliflower and roasted vegetables.

Place both dishes in the preheated oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, turning at least once so the tops brown evenly. The moussakas are done when they are bubbling and browned in spots here and there on top. Serve hot. This can also be reheated the next day in a low oven or microwave.

Each moussaka serves 4-6 people.

Lemon Béchamel Sauce

  • 5 cups whole milk
  • 7 tablespoons butter
  • 2/3 cup flour
  • grated rind of one large lemon or 1½ small lemons (use organic if possible and wash well before grating)
  • 4 egg yolks, whisked together lightly in a bowl
  • several gratings of fresh nutmeg or 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the milk either in a microwave or on the stovetop until quite warm. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large saucepan. When the butter has melted, whisk in the flour. Allow to bubble for a few minutes, stirring often.

Whisk in the milk about 1 cup at a time, whisking until the mixture is smooth after each addition. Continue heating over medium-low heat, stirring almost constantly, being careful not to burn the bottom of the pot. Alternate between a wooden spoon that scrapes the mixture from the bottom (where it will thicken more quickly) and a whisk, to smooth the sauce. When the mixture has thickened and is just beginning to simmer a little, remove from the heat and whisk well to smooth.

Temper the yolks by pouring about 2 cups of the hot sauce into them, whisking constantly. Pour the mixture back into the pot, whisking constantly. Whisk in the lemon rind, the nutmeg and the salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Cover with a piece of plastic wrap or parchment paper placed right on the surface of the sauce to keep it from forming a skin. Set aside while preparing the rest of the moussaka.

Roasted Carrots and Parsnips:

  • 2 pounds carrots, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick
  • 2 pounds parsnips, peeled and cut into half-moons about 1/4 inch thick
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • several sprigs fresh thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the carrots on one sheet tray and the parsnips on another. Divide the olive oil between the two trays, strip the leaves from the sprigs of thyme and divide between the trays and sprinkle both with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables to coat well with oil, thyme and salt and pepper. Bake in the preheated oven for about 15 minutes stirring the vegetables and turning the trays once or twice so they cook evenly. When the vegetables are softened and browned here and there, remove from the oven and set aside.

Meat Moussaka Base:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the beef and cook, breaking up the meat and mixing it with the onions and garlic. When still a little pink but mostly cooked, add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching, until thickened a bit and the flavors are well combined.

Cauliflower Moussaka Base:

  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 small head or 1/2 large head cauliflower, washed and cut into 1 inch chunks
  • 2 cups chopped canned plum tomatoes, with their juice
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/4 cup currants
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon dried marjoram or oregano
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large skillet or dutch oven. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened. Add the cauliflower and cook, mixing it with the onions and garlic. When the cauliflower is beginning to soften, add the remaining ingredients. Simmer for about 10-15 minutes, stirring often to prevent scorching, until thickened a bit and the flavors are well combined.

Preserved Lemons: Easy to Make, Easy to Use

I recently picked up Paula Wolfert’s beautiful cookbook, The Food of Morocco, in which Wolfert extols preserved lemons as “the most important condiment in the Moroccan preserved lemonslarder.” Fresh lemons, she warns, are no substitute, and I agree.

Brined in sea salt and lemon juice, then fermented for up to a month, preserved lemons take on a melting texture. Their flavor becomes more complex and mellow, as the tang of lactic acid fermentation melds with the lemon’s natural acidity. So while most of us wouldn’t want to eat more than a nibble of raw lemon peel, preserved lemon peel is as addictive as good olives; in fact, olives and preserved lemon are a classic combination in Morocco’s famous tagines.

Preserving lemons at home is easy. All you need are good quality organic lemons (conventional lemons harbor too many toxic chemicals), sea salt and a jar. How long the Continue reading