Aphrodite’s Island

I have been thinking about Greek and Greek-Cypriot food since I wrote the post with keftedakia and dolmades.  So much so that I have booked a table for Dad and me at Thalassa tonight!  I haven’t found a Greek-Cypriot restaurant in New York yet, but I have already been to this restaurant and it’s really rather nice.

Greek and Greek-Cypriot cuisines are not interchangeable, but they have many dishes in common, in name at least.  Greek-Cypriot food is much more influenced by the Levant, being only 70 miles from the coast of the Lebanon,  and includes the wonderful meze as a standard.  Greece is a large and sprawling country with many, many islands and dishes with the same name are cooked quite differently throughout the land.  Neither country has yet become known for fine cooking and that’s perfect for me – fine dining doesn’t go easily with this style of eating.  Cyprus has been influenced by successive waves of occupation.  Imam Bayaldi is a Turkish dish, meaning literally ‘The Imam fainted’ – presumably from the joy of the dish.  Hummus, originally a Lebanese dish, is eaten throughout Cyprus, but not as commonly in Greece.   Pasticcio, a form of lasagne, seems to be a relic from the Venetian rulers.

I have been to Cyprus three times – twice in quick succession in 1992/1993 and then not again until 2011.  In the two early visits, we stayed in Paphos, a popular tourist destination in the south.  It seemed to me that every restaurant we ate at on those two visits was excellent – that the mezes were memorable.  I came to the conclusion that it was nigh on impossible to eat badly in  Cyprus.  Unfortunately when we returned with Bapu in 2011, the situation was very different.  We had very average Greek food twice in Larnaca and Paphos.   On the second occasion, at a restaurant we had visited on the previous trips.  Bapu was very disappointed at how hard it was to find Greek-Cypriots in the restaurants and how many foreigners there were – living, working and with second homes.  We had three wonderful meals – a home barbecue at the home of Bapu’s sister and family; fresh fish and meze in Risokarpasso, now in the Turkish area but the food was Cypriot and excellent; and the best meal of all, at a restaurant recommended by Bapu’s family, Soutsos near Larnaca.  I looked around and I know I was the only person in there without Greek blood.  We had a fantastic meze, with dishes I’ve never seen and more food than we knew could be served to three people.  Bapu bravely ate his way through everything Dad and I disdained, including two platters of snails, large and small… and then asked for glykko (super sweet candied fruit)!  We rolled him back to the hotel.

Today’s recipe is a classic Greek dish, eaten widely in Cyprus too.  It is an example of the differences between the two cuisines.  Moussaka is always thought of as being a layered lamb and aubergine pie.  It certainly is in Greece, but in Cyprus the lamb is sometimes replaced by beef, and the aubergines are often replaced by courgettes or potatoes.  I prefer it with aubergines, but some of you don’t like them which is why I am giving you the Cypriot recipe.  I was told once when I was in  Greece that one should never eat moussaka for dinner in a restaurant, because it is made in the morning and therefore sits around all day waiting to be eaten.  I was told this after I had ordered it, but happily suffered no ill-effects.

Moussaka – Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 1 kg / 2 lbs aubergines or courgettes, or a mixture trimmed and sliced lengthways in thick slices, or
  • 1 kg /2 lbs large potatoes, cooked, pealed and sliced
  • 1/2 glass / 100 ml olive or sunflower oil
  • 2 medium onions, sliced
  • 450 g / 1 lb minced beef or lamb
  • 2 large tomatoes, grated (peel first) or 1 x 400 g tin of chopped tomatoes
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 glass / 100 ml red wine
  • Salt and pepper

For the white sauce

  • 75 g / 3 oz butter
  • 4 level tbsp flour
  • 1 pint milk
  • Ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs
  • 50 g / 2 oz grated cheese – in Cyprus they use halloumi (acquired taste like this, frankly), or kefalotiri (nice but you’d have to go to Wood Green to get it).  Parmesan works well or strong Cheddar.  Keep a little extra to sprinkle on top before baking.

Method

If using, lightly salt the aubergines and leave for half an hour.  Rinse and pat dry with kitchen towel.  You don’t need to do anything to courgettes or potatoes.  Fry whichever vegetables you’re using in the oil.  Brown but don’t over cook.  Leave to drain on kitchen paper.  Aubergines absorb a huge amount of oil.  One tip I read but which I haven’t tried is to lightly beat the white of an egg, dip the slices in the egg and then fry – allegedly much less oil is absorbed and the dish will be healthier.

Gently fry the meat in a pan.  As the fat starts to come out of the meat, add the onions.  Fry together until onions are soft and the meat is completely browned and doesn’t have any lumps.  Add the tomatoes, herbs, spices and red wine and cook for a further 25 mins until most of the liquid has been absorbed.

To make the sauce, melt the butter in yet another pan, and then stir in the flour.  Cook gently for 5 mins.  Add the milk gradually, letting it heat through before you whisk.  When all the milk has been added, cook gently for a couple of mins and then take off the heat.  Stir in the cheese and some ground nutmeg.  When the sauce has cooled, add the eggs.

In a baking dish (15 cm / 15 cm /  10″ x 10″ is the recommended size for these quantities), cover the bottom with half of your chosen vegetable/s.  Spread the meat over.  Cover with the remainder of your vegetables (think lasagne when you’re doing this).  Cover with the white sauce, sprinkle with a little more cheese, and bake in the oven 175 C / 350 F / Gas Mark 4 / moderate for about 50 mins until the top is a good crusty brown.

For the non-Brits, aubergine = eggplant and courgette = zucchini

Enjoy!