Friday, February 8, 2013

Lebanese Moussaka

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So aubergine doth, though it be eggplant call'd,
Retain that slimy perfection which it owes
Without that title. Moussaka, doff thy name,
And with that flesh which is all parts of thee
Feed all myself.

We are fortunate enough to live near several excellent Middle Eastern markets and restaurants, where we do a good deal of shopping and eating. One of these serves a stew-like dish called "moussaka," whose main resemblance to the Greek casserole lies in its seasoning profile and ingredients like eggplant and a tomato-based sauce. A visit to the Oxford English Dictionary yielded the following definition: "A Balkan and eastern Mediterranean baked dish of minced lamb or beef layered with vegetables (esp. aubergines, potatoes, courgettes, onions), usually with a topping of béchamel sauce," which is what I grew up eating, and have since veganized.

However, a look at the etymology yields: "Ottoman Turkish mūṣāqa, Turkish musakka, ultimately Arabic musaqqā, lit. ‘that which is fed liquid’ (see note), passive participle of saqqā to feed liquid to. In later use probably reborrowed variously via modern Greek μουσακάς and similar forms in Balkan languages: compare Romanian musaca, Bulgarian musaka, Serbian and Croatian musaka, Albanian musaka. Compare also French moussaka (1934 or earlier). The Arabic etymon suggests a procedure of repeatedly adding liquid during cooking; however, this is not mentioned for moussaka in Turkish cookery books, old or new. It perhaps refers simply to the addition of the sauce."

So the upshot seems that to be that "moussaka" generally refers to the Greek version, but the word's linguistic roots relate better to the stew-like Lebanese version on which today's recipe is based. But at the end of the day, what's in a name? No matter what you choose to call it, the combination of eggplant, tomatoes, and warm, Mediterranean spices is equally beguiling, and makes a comforting meal ladled over rice, couscous, or (in its most recent appearance chez nous) soft polenta.

Lebanese Moussaka
~ 2 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 large onion, diced
~ 1 large eggplant, cubed
~ 2 tbsp. minced garlic
~ 1 tsp. each: salt, marjoram, chili powder
~ 1/2 tsp. each: cinnamon, smoked paprika
~ Pinch each: cayenne, nutmeg
~ 1 14 oz. can diced, fire-roasted tomatoes (including liquid)
~ 1 tbsp. each: tomato paste, pomegranate molasses
~ 1 14 oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
~ 2-3 tsps. za'atar
~ 1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
~ Chopped, toasted pistachios and/or walnuts for garnish

~ In a large, deep skillet, sauté the onion in the olive oil over medium-high heat for about five minutes.
~ Add the cubed eggplant, stir to combine, and continue cooking 5-7 minutes, until it begins to soften.
~ Add the garlic and seasonings and cook another minute before stirring in the tomato paste, molasses, canned tomatoes, and chickpeas. Bring briefly to a boil, then cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.
~ Stir in the za'atar and fresh parsley, mix thoroughly, and serve hot over couscous, rice, or soft polenta. Sprinkle a handful of toasted pistachios and/or walnuts over the top of each serving.