Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lenten Season’s Big Finish: Lamb-less Moussaka, the Final Sacrifice for Easter

Easter is now less than a week away, and Christians will be breaking the Lenten restrictions they’ve imposed on themselves since mid-February in remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice. To those of my readers who will be celebrating this holiday I offer below some actual food to go along with the food for thought, should you be stumped about what to prepare for your holiday feast. But first, the food for thought.
The past week we’ve seen all manner of Easter- and Passover-themed TV specials: Who Killed Jesus?, which recites the betrayals of the various players in the crucifixion narrative; Did Judas Kill Jesus?, which theorizes there was a Professor Snape/Dumbledore-like conspiracy between Judas and Jesus for the one to betray the other; The Diary of Anne Frank, which needs no elucidation on the theme of innocent life sacrificed for man’s folly; and, of course, the many programs spawned by the Da Vinci Code, which postulate either the existence of a bloodline from Jesus and Mary Magdalene, or pseudo-scientific research disproving such a bloodline. I’m mental for Yentl, myself. One show in particular – Who Was Jesus? – caught my attention, though, as I was flipping through the cable channels. I happened to find it when it was just beginning, at a scene where the narration was explaining the primary role of the Temple priests in Jesus’ time.
In the background of the scene was a large, three-sided, fortress-like structure, with 15-foot high, stone walls flanked by wide, stone staircases. In the foreground, the boy Jesus was depicted with his parents and their kid offering speaking with a Temple priest. The scene reminded me that in ancient Israel it was the primary responsibility of these religious leaders to perform animal slaughter on behalf of supplicants, and that this enormous structure is where they performed the slaughter – this was their altar. Day in and day out, and purely for the vanity of the wealthy people in Jesus’ community, who believed they could buy their way out of adversity through the taking of innocent life, Temple priests murdered these animals, the very first ‘scapegoats’ in history, to appease ‘god.’
Today, we reflexively take baby sheep from their mothers and then murder them so we can put their mangled and charred flesh on our holiday tables and serve it to our family and friends at Easter. I grew up in a family who feasted on ham each year because lamb was too luxurious for the families of origin of both of my parents, but in my early adulthood I spent my holidays with my best friend’s family, who were Albanian and ate lamb flesh in every conceivable way it could be prepared: chunks skewered and then grilled with succulent, ripe vegetables; ground up, as the filling for an enormous, pizza-shaped, flaky dough pie called ‘lakror ose pesch’ (pie with lamb); and whole legs roasted with parsley, garlic and lemon. I cannot deny they were all delicious dishes and expertly prepared by my friend’s mother, who could make world-class chefs purple with envy of her talent. But every holiday, I’d find myself crying while I was driving home, thinking about the terror of the little babies who were pulled from their mothers before they were even weaned, and then brutally murdered in the presence of other little babies meeting the same fate, and the confusion and terror of their mothers, who didn’t know where their babies had gone. It sickened me. It’s said that Stella McCartney (may she rest in peace), wife of former Beatle, Sir Paul, and mother of fashion designer, Stella, had a similar experience one Easter at their farm, just as she was sitting down to a lamb feast, when she happened to notice the fortunate ones that would live beyond their “holiday,” gamboling in their fields. Rumor has it she became vegan on the spot. Now that’s an epiphany!
“Why must my pleasure be at the expense of the life of one of these beautiful creatures?,” I would find myself thinking after Easter celebrations with my friend and her family. When it finally dawned on me that it needn’t be, I felt such a release and sense of joy – such as (I imagine), the liberating feeling that comes upon one when she finally understands fully the nature of the Christic concepts and, especially, of sacrifice. One year, I just decided to forgo meat altogether – to make a bold sacrifice at the end of my Lenten sacrificial season, humbly accepting that no amount of animal slaughter was going to make me more knowledgeable about Jesus’ teachings and sacrifice, or any more capable of a similar martyrdom, than I am already. And then I asked myself, “What would I have instead to celebrate this most holy of Christian holidays?” That answer was a delightful surprise: anything that substituted a hearty buckwheat grain for the lamb I knew I had to give up.
Furthermore, this main course would have to be an explosion of tastes – a joyful circus of flavors – to make the meal a true celebration, and elegant enough for guests. Happily, the answer arrived with barely any exertion: moussaka! The delicious pockets of sweet apricots and currants colliding with the savory flavor of onion and tomato, in a hearty, spicy and chewy filling, overlaid with a minty layer of lemon and cayenne pepper to finish and wrapped in a blanket of succulent and delicately seasoned eggplant would provide just the cornerstone to my feast that I needed. Why not make it yours on Easter, too, if you, like me, later regret the needless cost of life to an innocent, baby animal simply for your gastronomical pleasure? Go ahead – sacrifice the symbolic sacrifice for a genuine one. This dish is worth it, I promise you. [I’ve adapted the following recipe from the “Eggplant Wrapped Moussaka” recipe in Julee Rosso and the gifted Sheila Lukins’ (may she rest in peace) The New Basics Cookbook (© 1989 Workman Publishing, New York). Thanks, Silver Palate girls.]
Don’t forget to check back here next Saturday, the 3rd, for my (now annual) Easter message.
Microwave (the cooking goes a lot faster if you use one. If you don’t, plan on spending 3-1/2 hours to prepare this recipe from start to finish, compared with 1 hour, 20 minutes if you do. With everything to do on a holiday, you may want to cook the grains and squash in this recipe the day before.).
Large skillet
Braising brush
Small mixing bowl
3 cereal bowls
Long-handled wooden spoon
Slotted spoon
9” Pyrex pie plate
1 standard, 7-1/2-cup Pyrex casserole dish with lid
large chopping board and good paring knife
large, beveled plate, or charger
carving knife and pie server
Love (focus and patience in anticipation of the joy your guests will receive by your creation)
3 tspn. ground ginger
3 tspn. ground cinnamon
3 tspn. ground cumin
3 tspn. paprika
1/2" tsp. cayenne pepper
salt, fresh ground pepper to taste
1/4 cup, plus 3 tbls. olive oil
1-1/4 cup white rice, or white quinoa (pronounced, KEEN-wah, and comes in red as well as white, which is my preference in dishes that call for rice, because it has a lower glycemic index than rice).
1-1/4 cup buckwheat groats (my preference, because it holds up better than kasha), or 1 cup kasha
1 small-to-medium acorn squash
2 small, or one really large, eggplant
2 medium onions, chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)
8 to 10 oz. chopped, canned tomatoes (roughly, half a 16-oz. can)
1 cup vegetable broth
2 cups chopped, unsulphered, dried apricots
1 cups dried currants
1-1/2 cups salted, roasted pistachio meats
7-8 oz. fresh chopped mint leaves
3 tbls. fresh lemon juice (juice of half a lemon)
24-28 oz. Greek-style plain yogurt (fat-free is fine, if you’re watching your cholesterol)
3 tbls. fresh lemon (juice of half a lemon)
3 oz. fresh chopped mint leaves
salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°. Oil the bottom and sides of the casserole dish, and the edges of its lid, with 1 tbls. olive oil.
Rinse the white quinoa twice in filtered water and place it in a cereal bowl, or simply place your rice in the cereal bowl. Fill bowl 4/5 with filtered water and microwave on high, 15 minutes. Rinse the buckwheat groats and place them in a cereal bowl. Fill bowl 4/5 with filtered water and microwave on high, 20 minutes (for the whole kernal, which I prefer to use; 12-15 minutes for kasha). Halve the acorn squash and deseed. Place each half in a cereal bowl filled half-way with filtered water. Microwave on high, 18 minutes. Remove squash from bowls and cool on cutting board.
While your grains and squash are cooking, mix the ginger, cinnamon, cumin, paprika and cayenne pepper together with a few pinches of salt in a small mixing bowl. Set aside.
Peel the eggplant, if you don’t like removing the skin while eating. This dish is substantial, and though the eggplant meat practically dissolves in your mouth after cooking, because it’s molded around a hearty filling, it will hold its shape through one or two re-heatings (if any is left over), so you don’t have to leave the skin on. Remove the ends and slice, lengthwise, into 1/2" thick slices. You should have at least ten whole slices and three or four smaller ones.
Pour the quarter cup of olive oil into the Pyrex pie plate, scraping the sides of the measuring cup with a spatula. Whisk two-thirds of the spice mixture into the olive oil until a smooth paste develops. Add more oil, as necessary. Using your brush, lightly and evenly baste both sides of all ten whole and three or four smaller pieces of eggplant with the spice and olive oil mixture. Line the pre-oiled casserole dish with these slices, reserving the largest pieces for the bottom, sides and, later, the top. Use the smaller pieces to fill in any bare spots, until the entire dish is lined. Set aside the pieces for the top.
Sauté the chopped onions in the remaining 2 tbls. of olive oil on medium, 3-4 minutes (use more oil, if you find your skillet heats unevenly), stirring with a wooden spoon. Be careful not to burn them. Add the cooked buckwheat, vegetable broth, tomatoes with their liquid and the remaining one-third of the spice mixture. Mix thoroughly. Lower heat and cover. Simmer for 3-4 minutes.
Scoop squash meat from rinds and add by dollops into the simmering filling, stirring thoroughly. If mixture has lost all of its moisture, add more vegetable broth. Then add 3-4 oz. of the chopped mint, the apricots and currants and cover again. Check heat and lower, if necessary. Simmer for 2-3 minutes.
Add the quinoa (or rice), lemon juice and pistachio nut meats to filling. Mix thoroughly. Add salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste (remember – you already have cayenne in here, and you will feel it, after the casserole bakes). Remove from heat.
Scoop filling into eggplant-lined casserole dish with slotted spoon. There should be plenty of mixture to fill the entire casserole dish. Top with remaining eggplant slices and cover with oiled casserole lid.
Bake for 45 minutes. Prepare the yogurt sauce, below. When you remove the casserole from the oven, let it sit for 15 minutes before serving. When you are ready to serve it, remove the lid, place a large, beveled plate or a charger, face down, on top of the casserole and invert the moussaka onto it. Slice it with a large carving knife as you would a pie: in a cross, first, then length-wise, across the plate, through the middle of each of the right-hand 45° angles, into a “pinwheel” pattern. Serve pie sections with pie server, topped with yogurt sauce.
Serves 4-6.
Yogurt Sauce (for vegetarians; vegans can omit this (or make it with Tofuti yogurt), as well as the crostini appetizers and dairy in the desserts):
Thoroughly mix yogurt, lemon juice, the remaining 3-4 oz. of chopped mint leaves, salt and pepper together in an attractive serving bowl. Cover and refrigerate while casserole bakes and sets.
Excellent accompaniments include:
For appetizers –
A good sherry (not Amontillado)
3/4 cup chopped, pitted Kalamata olives mixed with 1-1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese (there’s even terrific vegan feta cheese on the market today) and 1 tsp. dried mint on olive-oiled toasted crostini (French baguette) pieces; garnish platter with cherry tomatoes
Stuffed grape leaves (any middle eastern market has these already prepared)
Mugs of garlic soup (any Spanish cookbook should have this traditional soup recipe), if there’s still a chill in the air on Easter
Hummus garnished with chopped parsley and warm pita bread wedges for dipping
For sides –
Greek salad (fresh romaine lettuce leaves, whole pitted Kalamata olives, feta cheese, Bermuda onion, sliced green pepper, dressed with a lemon/parmesan dressing and fresh ground pepper)
Though there’s plenty of rice in the moussaka (and the appetizer, if you serve the grape leaves), you can prepare an easy pilaf while the casserole bakes, if you think you’ll need it, by cooking 1-1/4 cups of a short-grain rice in a mixture of 1 cup filtered water and 1-1/4 vegetable broth and 1 tbls. of olive oil for 20 minutes. Add 1/4 cup orzo pasta, 1/4 cup finely chopped green (or green and red) pepper, and 1-1/2 tsp. chopped shallots in the last 8 minutes of cooking. When the 20 minutes are up, remove from the heat and let sit, 5 minutes. Fluff with fork, then turn into serving dish and add 2 tbls. butter or soy margarine (if you’re vegan) and 1-1/2 tsp. chopped parsley. Salt and pepper to taste.
For wines –
I like a reliable Sauvignon blanc, because it’s sturdy enough to hold up to the spices in this dish, but please your guests with a Vognier, which can be just as hearty as a Sauv. Blanc, as well as fruity (I like the Honey Moon brand), or a light and tasty Orvieto (if you prefer more fruit than body). They will remember your hospitality the whole year.
For dessert –
What could be better than a lightly-sweetened almond cake with a touch of café au lait syrup and vanilla ice cream, or an angel food cake (or lady fingers soaked in brandy and cream), with fresh sliced strawberries and fresh whipped cream? Coffee and brandy, for those not driving.

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