Paleo Moussaka

2013-01-08
Moussaka is a traditional Greek casserole that I would classify to be more in the lasagna category.  It is traditionally made with eggplant, potato, beef, and a creamy bechamel sauce made with butter, milk, flour, and egg yolks.  There are probably as many variations on this recipe as there are Greek families in the world… but those ingredients are the essentials, along with a touch of cinnamon, which is also in a similar Greek dish called Pastitsio.  Oddly enough, as much as I love eggplant, I had never had Moussaka before making this dish.  This doesn’t qualify as a family recipe because it is not a dish that any of my family members have ever brought to a Greek Easter celebration (although I’m sure if I’d asked… a Cousin would have happily supplied me with their variation).

The inspiration for this dish actually came from watching an episode on Food Network with Sandra Lee.  She was making her version of Moussaka, and made it look very simple.  I had to cross-reference her recipe with a “traditional” Greek version, so I ended up on the About.com Greek Food webpage.  It is from that site that I decided that I would “bread” the eggplant, adding more complexity and texture to the dish, as well as giving a nod to tradition.  I obviously made a lot of nontraditional changes to make the recipe Paleo, and some accidental changes because of ingredients that I had available in my pantry… in the spirit of the saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.”

I’m not going to lie, there are more steps than recipes I typically make.  From start to finish it will take about two hours.  However, don’t be discouraged!  The steps are simple, and the result is so delicious and flavorful that even people who “don’t eat Paleo” would never guess that there is no lactose or gluten!  I am especially proud of this recipe because I had never attempted to make bechamel sauce before in my life!

I credit my Mom for that success.  I have watched her make rice pudding a dozen times, which involves the process of tempering the egg by adding warm milk before pouring it into the whole pot.  I even used a whole egg for the sauce (usually it is just the yoke), because I didn’t feel like storing a single egg white, and the bechamel turned out perfect!  I knew that I wanted to use coconut milk thickened with xanthum gum.  Xanthum gum was even available in the Commissary from Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods company (I also use their brand of almond meal/flour).  I had never used it before, but it is Paleo and a better alternative to arrowroot in my opinion because it doesn’t have to be heated up to use as a thickener.  I would simply suggest avoiding coconut flour or almond meal as a thickener in this case, because it may not dissolve completely and you don’t want a grainy mouth-feel with bechamel.

Like I said, there are many steps, but the payoff is big.  You could also save yourself some time by making the meat mixture in advance.  You end up working with all the ingredients except the bechamel sauce at room temperature when you assemble the casserole.

A note about ingredients:  I ended up using (and loving) diced fire-roasted tomatoes for the meat, because that is all I had in my pantry.  I believe they gave the meat more depth of flavor, but certainly use whatever you have on hand!  With the eggplant, they obviously come in many different sizes.  I had such a large one, that I had extra slices of eggplant leftover (I ate them to avoid storing them).  If you end up with a medium eggplant and have few slices, just do a layer of eggplant at the bottom and top, putting all the meat mixture in the middle.  It will have the same look and taste!  Also, I “breaded” the eggplant with coconut flour, but you could certainly use almond meal/flour.

A note about equipment:  I used two baking pans and wire racks for breading the eggplant.  I still had to do two batches, but two pans at a time saves time!  Also, I used a 9-inch circular silicone baking pan for the casserole.  Because silicone doesn’t maintain structure on its own, I placed a pizza pan underneath (to easily place it in the oven, and it baked on the sheet as well).  If you are using a glass casserole dish, the pan underneath probably won’t be necessary.

I served this with Paleo Stuffed Pepper Soup, but this could also go with the Paleo Hot Antipasto, a salad… or be enjoyed on its own!

Ingredients

  • 1 lg eggplant, sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices
  • sea salt, black pepper, garlic powder, to taste
  • 1 cup coconut flour
  • 3 eggs, beaten, divided (2 for egg wash, 1 for bechamel sauce)
  • 1 tbs coconut oil
  • 1 pound grass fed ground beef
  • 1 medium red onion, diced
  • 2 tsp italian seasoning
  • 1 tbs minced garlic
  • 2 (14.5 oz) cans organic diced fire roasted tomatoes
  • 1/2 tsp saigon cinnamon, divided
  • 1 can unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1/4 tsp xanthum gum (or arrowroot starch)
  • garnish with parsley, if desired

Instructions

  • 1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  • 2. Slice eggplant in 1/4 inch medallions, set aside
  • 3. For egg wash: add a splash of water to the egg whites and beat them lightly with a fork in a shallow bowl
  • 4. Add coconut flour to a flat plate, and season with sea salt, black pepper, and garlic powder
  • 5. Place a wire rack inside a rimmed baking pan, and place “breaded” eggplant evenly spaced
  • 6. Bake for 20 minutes or until slightly golden brown, then set aside and let eggplant cool
  • 7. In large nonstick skillet, heat coconut oil
  • 8. Add beef, and break apart with spoon or spatula
  • 9. Add onion, a cook mixture until onions are translucent and meat is cooked through
  • 10. Add the garlic, Italian seasoning, 1/4 tsp Saigon cinnamon, stir well
  • 11. Stir in tomatoes and simmer until thickened and the flavors have combined, about 20 minutes
  • 12. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt, black pepper, or red pepper flakes (if you want a touch of spice), then turn off heat and set aside
  • 13. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  • 14. For the bechamel sauce, crack an egg in a small bowl and beat until an even color
  • 15. In a small saucepan over medium-low/low heat, add coconut milk
  • 16. Whisk in 1/4 tsp xanthum gum until there are no clumps
  • 17. As soon as xanthum gum in incorporated, remove from heat and temper eggs by whisking about half of the coconut milk into the egg
  • 18. Return saucepan to heat, and pour egg mixture into remaining coconut milk, whisking continuously
  • 19. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until coconut milk is slightly thickened and begins to bubble
  • 20. Remove from heat and whisk in 1/4 tsp Saigon cinnamon and a pinch of black pepper/sea salt
  • 21. Time to build everything together! Place a 9 inch circular casserole dish or silicone pan onto a baking pan (especially if using a silicone pan)
  • 22. Overlap eggplant slices to cover the bottom of a 9 inch circular pan (6-9 slices)
  • 23. Using a slotted spoon, spread half of meat mixture over eggplant, distributing evenly
  • 24. Put another layer of eggplant, covering meat mixture, then take the bottom of a large bowl or circular plate and press down gently to flatten eggplant a little
  • 25. Add the rest of the meat, cover with eggplant, then gently press it all down again to make room for bechamel sauce
  • 26. Pour the bechamel sauce over the top and distribute evenly, allowing it to drip down the edges of the eggplant mixture (inside the casserole dish!)
  • 27. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until slightly browned and bubbling
  • 28. Remove from oven and let rest for 10-15 minutes so that it is easier to slice
  • 29. Garnish with parsley, if desired
  • 30. Enjoy!