Moussaka/Pastitsio

Jump to the Moussaka Pastitsio recipe or to the steps.

moussaka eggplant
Which is which? That’s the beauty of these two dishes; from the pan, you really can’t tell.

Two big grand dishes of immense comfort, moussaka and pastitsio or basically the same: a kind of Greek lasagna, where spiced ground meat (or lentils, if you want to go vegetarian) is/are layered with either eggplant or pasta, then topped with a fluffy béchamel sauce that puffs up in the oven.

Of the 2, moussaka is closer to lasagna, given that it boasts 2 layers of eggplant. Patitsio is kinda like a heartier version of macaroni and cheese. You could even do a weird, unholy but tasty hybrid, having both eggplant and pasta layers, because…why not?

And while the steps look long, it’s pretty straightforward. Both the meat sauce and the Béchamel can be made in advance, and you can assemble either casserole in about 5 minutes, once you’ve either fried the eggplant or boiled the pasta.

I decided to deliver them both to you in the same post to demo how similar they are, and how you can kind of game day your decision, depending on what you like and/or are in the mood for—as well as if you happen to have eggplant on hand. Note the bold type at the beginning of each step to indicate if the step is for one or both dishes.

Moussaka Pastitsio: A Note on the Cheese

If you’re up for doing a little bit of extra work—namely, heading to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean market—I highly recommend you track down kefalotiri cheese. It has a bunch of names that variations on the spelling, but man, it is awesome. Similar taste and texture-wise to halloumi, it makes this Béchamel and the rest of either taste taste rich and perfectly salty. Plus: Every Middle Eastern/Mediterranean market I’ve ever been to is staffed by delightful folks who are very happy to help you discover a lot of wonderful foods. Think about getting a jar of red pepper paste to sub for tomato paste.

moussaka pastitsio kefalotiri cheese

The Steps

  • Moussaka Pastitsio: meat or lentil sauce: Heat a big pan. Pour in some oil when the pan is hot. When the oil is hot, brown chopped onion and minced garlic, a good amount either way. Add half pound of ground meat (or raw lentils in half the amount), and stir til meat is brown or lentils are fully incorporated with the onions. Add dried oregano, a good hit of salt, pepper, a can of crushed tomatoes, a healthy spoon of tomato paste, and about a quarter cup of broth. Let simmer about 20 minutes. Season with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and cook one more minute, then check to see if it needs more salt an pepper. Cool to room temp; you can make this a day ahead if you like. When the mix is at room temp, add in one beaten egg.
  • Moussaka Pastitsio: Béchamel: For each 1/2 pound of meat or lentils you used, you want to whisk 2 tablespoons of whole milk with 1 egg yolk. Then melt 2 tablespoons of butter and whisk in flour until it’s smooth and bubbly. Gradually whisk in just under 1 cup of milk (the recipe uses one cup, so less 2 tablespoons), 1/4 teaspoon of salt, a pinch each of nutmeg and allspice, and then simmer it. Take the heat back down to low, and simmer while whisking until the sauce is nice and thick. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the egg yolk and 1/3 cup grated kefalotiri or Parmesan. You can now put it back very low heat, whisking for another couple of minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper, and set it aside. You can also make this a day ahead.
  • Pastitsio: Boil some pasta in salted water until al dente. Once again, you can do this a day ahead. Keep pasta covered and toss with a little oil before you store it.
  • Moussaka: slice your peeled eggplant into half-inch crosswise slices. Sprinkle with salt. Line a cookie sheet with towels (paper or otherwise), lay the slices on top, and then weight them down with something heavy and flat, maybe a platter or big casserole. Let them sit like that for 20 minutes.
  • Moussaka: Clean out your pan, or use a new one. Put some flour on a plate—gluten free is fine, especially chickpea flour. Season with salt and pepper. Pat the pressed eggplant slices dry, then dip them in the flour, shaking off any excess. Heat the pan, then heat a good 1/2 inch of oil. Make sure the oil is hot before you add the eggplant slices one at a time. You want them to brown up, but watch them carefully. A minute on each side should do the trick. Remove to drain on paper towels.
sauteed eggplant for moussaka
  • Moussaka assembly: Heat your oven to 325º. Put down a layer of half the eggplant, sprinkle with more grated cheese, add the filling. Top with the rest of the eggplant and more cheese. Pour on the bechamel, and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Bake 30 minutes, then increase heat to 400º and bake 15 minutes longer, for a golden brown top. Moussaka should rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.
  • Pastitsio assembly: Heat your oven to 325º. Place pasta in bottom of casserole. Add meat on top. Sprinkle on grated cheese, then pour on béchamel and sprinkle with additional cheese. Bake 30 minutes, then increase heat to 400º and bake 15 minutes longer, for a golden brown top. Pastitsio should rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with steamed green beans on the side. Greek Salad and Spanikopita are great go-withs.
moussaka eggplant
A steamed green veggie on the side, like these beans, perfectly complements either moussaka or pastitsio.

Moussaka Pastitsio: The Recipe

Mushroom Arugula Crepes

Jump straight to the mushroom arugula crepes recipe or the steps.

mushroom-arugula-crepes

There was a period in, I think, the late 70s, when the crepe pan was the must-have appliance—kind of like the instant pot today.

a crepe cookbook from the 70s
How adorable is the subtitle? I think the authors want to make sure you don’t take them too literally and actually try to do anything with crepes, like wear them to a ball or patch a roof leak.

Everybody who had a respectable kitchen owned a crepe pan. It was just a round, 8 or 9-inch skillet with a perfectly flat bottom, and I know Dad rushed out and bought one. And for a few weeks we ate a lot of crepes.

I don’t have a pic of Dad cooking, but this is us sometimes in the 70s. The crepe pan is nearby..

My dad was a pancake guy, and he made excellent ones. He loved to cook; Julia Child was his girl. He’d sit in front of her PBS show and take notes. Mom got a kick out of it; she never liked cooking, and was happy to abdicate the fancy stuff to Dad. She always said, “I think he likes her because she’s so messy.” As was Dad. Stuff got spilled, experiments went wrong. But he also embodied joy and tranquility in the kitchen. I remember him focused on flipping flapjacks in our cast iron skillet, or on kneading bread with his giant powerful hands, his breathing even and deep.

As noted, Dad’s pancakes were outstanding; he made his own starter dough. But his crepe pan flirtation was brief. The issue, I think, was that, rather than fluffy pillows to absorb a blob of butter and a hearty pour of syrup, crepes by their very nature require a delicate touch. They’re also often wrapped around filling. Dad wasn’t big on cooking that involved steps. He liked to get things done in one go. Eventually, the crepe pan moved to the back of the cupboard and the pancakes returned.

Mushroom Arugula Crepes: Steps

I didn’t try cooking crepes for years, and in the late 80s, when I began to learn to cook, they were out of fashion. But when I whipped up my first batch for brunch, I was stunned at how easy they were.

Recently, I bought some mushrooms and had no idea why. So I thought, as I often do, what would Bert Greene do? If you’ve spent any time here, first, thank you. Second, you know Bert Greene is one of my cooking heroes. I stumbled on this recipe, which incorporated mushrooms and watercress. And while I had no watercress—alas, because watercress is amazing—I did have arugula. I thought, mushroom arugula crepes. Whoa. Also, why the hell not?

mushroom arugula crepes ingredients

Greene loved to experiment, and over the course of his cookbooks, you find lots of variations on the crepe theme. And due to the fact that hardly anyone outside of Normandy eats crepes any more, I thought, wow, that sounds good. High time for a renaissance, don’t you think?

Crepe batter isn’t hugely different from pancake batter, though it’s thinner. It also lends itself to flavoring and improvisation. This version sautés mushrooms before throwing them in the blender. There, they go together in a flash, achieving the perfect aerated consistency, and a pretty pale green color.

mushroom arugula crepes batter

You pour out a few tablespoons on a hot pan, swirl the pan to get the crepe thin. Let it sit for a minute or so….

mushroom arugula crepes after pouring

…then flip it. Less than a minute later, it’s done, and you place it on a parchment-lined plate, run the end of a stick of butter over your pan, and pour in the next batch.

mushroom arugula crepes after flipping

Now, Mr. Greene said the mix would yield 12 crepes. I don’t have a crepe pan, just a big flat skillet. So I couldn’t do quite the fancy wrist spin I could have done with Dad’s old crepe pan, due to the pan’s weight. I ended up with 6 crepes that are a little thicker, but so, so tasty. I filled them with the remainder of the mushrooms sauteed and dressed up with more arugula and a touch of blue cheese since I didn’t have sour cream. Oh, and I threw on a little bacon, which is totally optional.

mushroom-arugula-crepes

Crepes are a luxurious lovely meal. Your eaters should feel thoroughly pampered; you may want to insist people recline on chaises upholstered in deep red velvet while you play louche German songs in the background. There’s zero need to tell anyone how easy they are. A good thing, as, once you serve a batch, you’re likely to get requests for more.

The Recipe

oven polenta

Oven Polenta with Roasted Veggies

Jump straight to the Oven Polenta with Roasted Veggies recipe.

I love corn, I love cornmeal, and I adore polenta. Steve wants nothing to do with it. So more for me.

polenta with roasted veggies

But everyone knows that polenta is a giant pain in the ass because of all that blasted stirring. I’ve made it in the crockpot; it eliminates the stirring, but also stiffens up the polenta so it’s like those little tubes you buy of ready made polenta at the store. This, my friends, is not the polenta of the Italian grandmother you may have had, or in my case, pine for on occasion. (I had a German grandmother on one side who could bake but preferred riding horses, and a French/Danish/Irish one on the other, who made weird multicolored popcorn balls and sauerkraut. Never polenta.)

Bon Appetit was one of my early cooking teachers, and it remains one of my favorite arrivals. I still like print magazines and probably always will. Leafing through the October issue, I saw what looked like a lovely bowl of polenta and a pan of roasted mushrooms. Most intriguing, the polenta was baked in the oven right alongside the veggies. The recipe subhead reads: “Call it cheating—we call it 30 minutes you don’t need to spend standing at the stove.”

Count me IN.

Oven Polenta with Roasted Veggies: The Prep

Look, why just roast a pan of mushrooms when you also have some eggplant and red bell pepper to use up? And why only add thyme when you also have some rosemary growing in a pot? These are questions I ask myself frequently, especially after a recent mild talking-to that Steve and I gave to ourselves about better using the virtual fruit of the refrigerator.

oven polenta with roasted veggies

I cubed the eggplant and pepper; I’d bought the shrooms sliced, so they were good to go. Roasting veggies is not a recipe thing, people. You put them in a bowl, add some oil, fresh herbs and garlic if you’re so inclined, seasonings. Then spread them on a sheet pan and roast them.
One new wrinkle that the recipe provides, and that I decided to give a try: Begin the roasting process at a measly 325º. I typically go for the max carmelization delivered by a hotter oven, but….why not?

oven polenta with roasted veggies

Veggies in oven, I heated broth and water together to a boil. The recipe specified water only, but long ago I learned that if you can sub something for the water, do it; more flavor.

I whisked in the polenta, covered the pot, then put it right in the oven. The nice low temp ensured that the polenta would cook gently all by itself. Then I sat down and played the piano for a while, because that is an amazing thing to be able to do while you wait for the timer to ring.

Oven Polenta with Roasted Veggies: Finishing

After about half an hour, the polenta was ready to come out. When I looked at it and shook the pan, I thought….this cannot be! The polenta was still liquid. But then I stirred it and found that it had indeed started to thicken to the perfect polenta consistency. I removed it, gave it a good whisk, and left it on the stove top.

oven polenta with roasted veggies

Now I cranked up the oven—the recipe actually instructs, “Crank up the oven”—to its highest temp, which on mine is 550º. Zoinks! The vegetables crisped up after about 10 minutes.

Then we went on a walk for about 40 minutes, with of course everything out of the oven. In that time, the polenta had set up beautifully: pourable, but not a soup, just that wonderful hybrid of liquid and solid that means ideal polenta. Without the walk, I would have kept the stove on its very lowest setting to give the polenta just a little more incentive to thicken.
But seriously, it was lovely.

oven polenta with roasted veggies

Oven Polenta with Roasted Veggies: The Recipe

best damn chicken title card

The Best Damn Chicken

As I recently noted in the recipe for Tea-Smoked Chicken, I want to like chicken. But most of the time…I just don’t. People always go on about how easy it is to cook, but they never mention the word “perfectly”—and for good reason. Chicken has a very small window of perfection. Overcook it the least bit, it’s dry and chewy. Undercook it and it’s not just repulsive, it’s dangerous. So this is why I’m excited about the best damn chicken. Ever. (I added that last part just to sound like all the other bloggers. You gotta do that single word period thing if you really want to play in the big leagues….) Here it is topping a salad (recipe coming soon!). Jump straight to the recipe for the best damn chicken or read my Fabulous Commentary and Step by Step.

First off, let’s address the whole meat thing. I’m not wild about the texture of chicken thighs, despite everyone insisting that they’re more flavorful. That flavor comes from extra fat, and that fat gives the meat a texture that I just find weird. As a child, the smell of roasting meat, particularly beef, which my mom cooked every freaking Sunday, used to make me gag. I still don’t eat mammals except for (forgive me) an occasional bit of bacon.

For the meat-squeamish, dark chicken meat—thighs, wings, drumsticks—just doesn’t cut it. Even when boneless, but especially when the bones are still in there. That whole gnawing-on-a-bone thing appears to be the height of primal ecstasy for some folks. For me, a medieval banquet sounds about as fun as living in medieval times. In other words, head lice, chastity belts (call me uncomfy!), and a lot more people who look like this…

princess bride boo lady than this:

princess bride buttercup

So right off the bat, you can bet that the best damn chicken is breast meat. Boneless and skinless. Yeah, I’m sort of like a picky 6-year-old here, and I am So OK With It.

Here’s how I prep it.

Best Damn Chicken: Cutting and Marinating

Best damn chicken starts with marinating boneless chicken breasts, because chicken breasts are hella bland. In order to expose as much surface as possible and, at the same time, make sure there are no disgusting tendon surprises in the meat, I cut the meat into about 2-3 inch pieces. The marinade needs salt due to the bland factor, and soy sauce functions beautifully in that role. There’s also some acid for tenderizing, via , and minced garlic and ginger for more flavor. If you were preparing this to go with Italian food, you could sub a super flavorful (read: not from Costco) broth for the soy sauce, and leave out the ginger in favor of some oregano. Let the chicken soak in that for at least half an hour; I like to do 3-4 hours myself.

best damn chicken marinade

(You could probably do it overnight in a pinch, though I haven’t tried it and can’t guarantee that the marinade won’t start to break down the texture. But given that it’s just a small amount of acid, I think you can get away with it.)

(Also? It is even harder to make this pretty than Chia Seed Pudding. I tried….)

Best Damn Chicken: Coating

First, heat your oven to 400º. Place a parchment lined rimmed dish or baking sheet in the oven to warm up. I like to put a little butter, say 2 tsp or so, on the sheet to melt.
While the oven preheats, mix up an egg in one bowl. Lift the chicken out of the marinade, then place it in the egg bowl and stir it around. Let it sit while you cover a plate in the flour of your choice; gluten-free will work just fine. Fish the pieces out of the egg one at a time with a fork; you’ll probably end up using your fingers at some point, but I’m just warning you it’s pretty messy. Put the egg-covered chicken piece in flour and turn it so that it’s lightly covered in flour. Some missing spots are ok, and it’s more of a dusting, not a dunk. Depending on how much you’re making, you might want to have a rack over a piece of parchment to hold the egged and floured chicken as it finishes.

best damn chicken coating

You could also shake 2 pieces at a time in a bag with flour; I just don’t know many people who keep paper bags around these days (not the small ones, like we used to use for lunch bags, which are kinda perfect for this).

Best Damn Chicken: Baking

Remove the hot baking sheet from the oven, and, if desired, add about a teaspoon or so of oil to the melted butter. You can either set the egged and floured pieces directly on the heated baking sheet, or you can just keep them on the rack, in which case there’s no need to have any fat on the baking sheet. But I find the fat adds a nice richness to the chicken. The rack method is not really going to yield a fried consistency, no matter what people tell you about oven fried chicken.
(BTW, I’m currently scouting for deals on an air fryer to see if they’re all they’re cracked up to be, but I have to say I’m skeptical that blowing all that hot air on food is really going to be good for it….)

Bake 10 minutes, flip the chicken, and it really only needs about another 3-4 minutes to be perfect. Add it to anything, especially a big salad or bowl. Or just dip it in ranch dressing. Thoroughly toothsome, to go slightly medieval on you.

best damn chicken baked

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Best Damn Chicken: The Recipe

Spaghetti Squash with Arugula, Walnuts, and Cherry Tomatoes

So the other night I saw a recipe for a pizza with arugula pesto and butternut squash and walnuts. And you can read all about why I didn’t make that in the post Recipe Improv: How to Let a Recipe Inspire and not Enslave You. That’s how you can find out about this dandy spaghetti squash arugula dish to come.

Here’s how I made it. First off, spaghetti squash always seems like a great idea—until I cook it. Truthfully, those delicate, angel hair-like strands tend to end up kinda soggy. They definitely don’t absorb sauce the way pasta does.

My way of dealing with this is to cut the squash down the center vertically. Next, I remove all the seeds and then oil and salt the sides. Finally, I place them flat side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. I roast them at 375º for about 45 minutes.

Astute readers will note, “Hey! That squash is cut horizontally AND vertically.” Yep. I decided to follow this advice when I cooked half the squash the other night. The point was to get longer strands, and…well, it wasn’t worth the hassle to me, but I include the link in case you want to try it and have better luck. On this night, I halved the already halved squash and baked as noted above.

spaghetti squash arugula, step one: roast and shred squash

But as you can see, even pulling the fork through the strands gave me kinda clumpy “noodles.” I had to go into my Zen “this will take a couple of minutes” mode, and play with the noodles with my hands a little to separate them. Then a little more salt to draw out the water, and back into a higher degree oven (400º) to dry them out a little.

spaghetti squash arugula, step two: separate strands

The rest was easy. I had some garlic oil I had made a night earlier by gently simmering very thinly sliced garlic in olive oil for about 10 minutes. Steve had picked up some beautiful arugula that I absolutely did not want to crush into a pesto. (Also, I felt way too lazy to deal with cleaning the food processor.) Fresh cherry tomatoes, roasted walnuts, Parmesan, fresh pepper: really, this couldn’t have been easier. And thus, arugula butternut squash pizza became spaghetti squash arugula.

Spaghetti Squash Arugula, the finished version