Greek cuisine, so often characterized here in L.A. as kind of, you know, “Mediterranean,” is a unique blend of ancient, Byzantine, Baltic, Turkish and Venetian influences.
And if you look a little more closely at some of Greece’s best loved dishes -- moussaka (eggplant and lamb casserole), pastitsio (pasta, cheese and meat casserole) and yiouvetsi (meat, orzo and tomato casserole), all seemingly homey baked melanges -- you’ll discover the descendants of noble, even royal dishes. Although they’re as easy to make as mac ‘n’ cheese, the complex, layered creations were originally served for Sunday dinners and special occasions.
Moussaka, almost a cliche as a Greek standard, is actually a relatively new “national” dish, arriving on the Greek mainland only in the 1920s. It was brought, during a time of political upheaval, by Greeks of the eastern regions whose cuisines had, for 2,000 years, been intertwined with the sophisticated, cosmopolitan cuisines of the people of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. These Asia Minor Greeks were urban dwellers and knew French and Italian cooking techniques.
Made of eggplant slices layered with a sauce of ground lamb, it is traditionally topped with a bechamel sauce enriched with eggs. It’s a summer dish, made when eggplant is in season, and usually made the day before serving.
Martha Rose Schulman’s Balkan-style version lightens the topping, using a mixture of yogurt, eggs and kefalotiri cheese (a sheep’s- and goat’s-milk cheese), which is unique, but may be compared to pecorino instead of the traditional bechamel sauce. She also bakes the eggplant instead of frying it, as is traditional. The spicing of this and other moussakas -- cloves, cinnamon, allspice -- speaks of its Byzantine origins.
Yiouvetsi, a casserole of lamb, beef or veal with orzo and tomato, is named for the earthenware baking dish it was traditionally baked and served in.
“I remember my mother would prepare the yiouvetsi early Sunday morning,” recalls Cosmas Kapantzos, owner of Astro Burger on Melrose in Hollywood whose business is American hamburgers, but who makes yiouvetsi for family and friends at home. In Greece when he was growing up, he says, the whole family would drop off the unbaked yiouvetsi at the bakery or fournou on the way to church. “You would pay about five drachmas to have the casserole baked,” he says. “After church my sister and I would stop by the bakery to pick up the casserole and a loaf of fresh baked bread while my mother went home to start preparing lunch.”
A moshari yiouvetsi (veal and pasta casserole) inspired by Kapantzo’s recipe uses orzo, the rice-shaped pasta, and mizithra cheese, a sheep’s- or goat’s-milk cheese that adds a distinct salty flavor. The long baking results in fork-tender veal. White wine in the tomato sauce gives an added dimension, and a garnish of chopped green onion, parsley and mint adds a modern zing.
Like moussaka, pastitsio is a sweet-savory layered dish. Its name is derived from the Italian word pasticcio (hodgepodge), but its origins are with the grand molded timballos of Italy. It’s made with tubular pasta such as penne or elbow macaroni mixed with eggs and kefalotiri cheese. The meat sauce, spiced with cinnamon and cloves, is spread over the pasta and topped with a bechamel-kefalotiri sauce. Our version is adapted from a recipe used by Anne-Marie Olympios, a Belgian-born travel-tour leader whose husband is Greek and whose cooking reflects her international experience. Her use of butter is authentic to the regions of Greece where dairy products dominate and olive trees don’t grow.
Traditionally Greek dishes are served warm or at room temperature rather then hot out of the oven. Each of these casseroles should rest for at least 20 minutes after being removed from the oven to allow them to finish cooking and allow the flavors to blend.
It’s worth a trip to a Greek market for mizithra or kefalotiri cheese. While you’re there, pick up a bottle or two of Greek wine, bread, olives and some honey-sweetened pastry or cookies to serve with your casserole. Otherwise, all you need to accompany these rich one-dish meals is a simple salad: sliced romaine with chopped green onion, olive oil and vinegar, maybe, or a classic combination of sliced tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, Kalamata olives and oregano with an olive oil and vinegar dressing.
Then wish your guests “kali orexi!” -- good appetite!
Salt the eggplant slices generously and place them in a bowl or colander for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, cook the lamb (or beef) in a large, nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, stirring and breaking up the meat until browned and the fat has rendered, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and pour off the fat. Set the meat aside in a bowl. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to the skillet and scrape up any browned bits. Add the scrapings to the meat.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in the skillet over medium heat and add the onions. Cook, stirring, until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, the browned meat, paprika, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, sugar, bay leaf, salt to taste, and one-half to 1 cup hot water (enough to cover the meat). Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. The mixture should be thick and fragrant. Cook, uncovered, until the liquid is almost gone, about 5 to 10 minutes more.
Remove the bay leaf, stir in pepper to taste, and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust for salt (remember, the eggplant will be salty).
Cool the mixture slightly, then stir in one beaten egg and the parsley. Heat the oven to 450 degrees.
Rinse the eggplant slices and pat dry with paper towels. Place them on baking sheets brushed with olive oil and brush the tops with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, until lightly browned and cooked through. Transfer to a bowl and reduce the oven to 350 degrees.
Brush a 3-quart baking or gratin dish with the remaining oil. Make an even layer of half the eggplant over the bottom, and spread on all of the meat sauce in one layer. Top with a layer of the remaining eggplant.
Bake the moussaka for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the topping. Beat the remaining 6 eggs and mix them with the yogurt. Season with three-fourths teaspoon of salt (or to taste), pepper (to taste) and a pinch of paprika. Pour over the moussaka.
Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the topping and bake for an additional 25 to 30 minutes, then place under the broiler for 1 minute or so until light golden brown on top. Watch carefully because it browns quickly. Serve warm.
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