In October of 2006, I squeezed away from an intense year of teacher’s college and took a greyhound to New York City for a long weekend. A few hours before I boarded a red-eye bus back to Toronto, I found myself with friends at a Turkish bar in Lower Manhattan sitting at a broad picnic table on an unseasonably warm evening. Picture strings of globe lights and cheap patio umbrellas. Of the particulars and the conversation (and even how I got there), I honestly don’t remember.
What I do remember is an order of moussaka: warm, unctuous, spiced. The eggplant was falling apart and coated in a savory tomato reduction, loaded down with potatoes that were punched through with flavor, all resting self-satisfied in a rich amber oil. Unlike other moussaka I’d had, this one was not a casserole baked under a layer of béchamel. It was just a deliciously homey plate of stewed meaty goodness.
While I’ve made moussaka the conventional way–at least according to the first few hits of a google search, with layers of fried eggplant, potato, saucy spiced meat, cheese, and béchamel–the full process involves a couple hours at the oven and stove, something that’s hard to imagine doing inside in the heat of late summer when garden eggplant are ripe.
Instead, I’ve attempted to recreate a no-bake moussaka for outside cooking, borrowing from this wonderful Easy Moussaka Recipe from Not Quite Nigella, who shares a rustic version of this eggplant-based dish. I loved reading her account of her friend’s Greek grandmother making this “lazy housewife’s moussaka.” Makes sense! For the day-to-day, there must be easier ways to make a hearty eggplant and lamb meal than as a béchamel-topped, twice-cooked casserole!
That said, if you follow this recipe on a charcoal grill (with a single, slightly temperamental heat source), leave yourself 3-4 hrs to factor in all the steps. I’m sure you could create an easy shortcut by doing steps 2 and 3 below simultaneously.
My version is adapted for a charcoal grill–because it’s 100F today, and there’s no way I’m heating up my house even more today! Apart from basic grill equipment, my other tool was a cast-iron pot. If you’re up for a fun and active afternoon of grilling, settle down outside with your favorite summer drink as you sear and stir this moussaka into being.
Moussaka on the Grill
- 1 lb ground lamb (or beef, or elk)
- 8-10 small/medium eggplant, sliced (~2 lbs)
- 3 large potatoes, sliced (~2 lbs)
- 2 small onions, diced fine
- 1 large tomato, grated
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 chili pepper, minced
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 cup of beef broth (I dissolve a tsp of Better than Bouillon in hot water)
- 1 cup parmesan cheese (or pecorino, romano, etc)
- olive oil
- salt and pepper
- fresh oregano/parsley, a few leaves (optional, for garnish)
Step 1: Prep (20-30 min)
a. Prepare the charcoal grill–it’s going to be a big day, so fill your chimney with briquettes
b. Slice and lightly salt the eggplant and let sit for 20-30 minutes to draw away moisture
c. In the meantime, prep the other vegetables: slice potatoes, dice onions, grate tomatoes, mince garlic and peppers. Also prepare a small dish with a generous glug of olive oil, and throw in some minced garlic for good measure (use this to baste the veggies in step 2).
Step 2: Grill the vegetable layers (20-30 min)
a. Make a central mound of lit briquettes, leaving cool zones on the perimeter (prep your grill as usual).
b. Zap the eggplant. It will cook fairly quickly (1-2 minutes per side for the ones in the hot center). Actually, start laying the eggplant from the outside in as you won’t need to mind the ones on the outside as carefully. As you flip the pieces and find one that is soft with some char marks, that side is ready, so baste it with some olive oil+garlic prepared in Step 1c. A brush works best, but you can use a paper towel or just drizzle it on with a spoon.
Be careful as you baste!!! Splashes of oil will cause grease flames from the grill, so try not to fling your oil around (and as impressive as the flames look, the smoking oil actually doesn’t add to the flavor of your veggies).
Move cooked eggplant from the center to the perimeter, then shuffle the more raw pieces to the middle. Repeat the turning and basting. Remove the cooked eggplant from the grill to a covered bowl.
c. On the hot part of your grill, cook your potato slices. The potatoes will be a touch slower to cook through that the eggplant, but keep an eye on the hot center as you did before. Rotate the cooked potato to the perimeter. Again, when it’s partway done (turning translucent with a few golden spots), start basting the slices with olive oil+garlic, being careful again to avoid splashing oil around.
Remove to a bowl or plate and set aside.
Step 3: Cook the lamb and sauce
a. Plonk your cast-iron skillet or pot in the middle of the grill and let it warm up. Actually, check first to see if you’ve got enough fuel. If it’s looking low, add some briquettes now.
b. Add a generous glug of olive oil. You can even use the leftover oil-garlic concoction you used to baste the vegetables in the previous step. Add the onion, garlic, and chili.
Fry until onions are translucent and starting to brown. Then, add the lamb meat and continue frying until the meat is well browned.
c. Add grated tomato. Cook until the mixture is starting to stick to the bottom.
d. Add red wine, and reduce again until the mixture is thick and gravy-like. Season with salt, pepper, and a bit of nutmeg to taste. (Be careful of adding too much nutmeg. I have done that in a past and it can create a soapy taste due to an interesting process of saponification!)
e. Take the pot/skillet off the grill. If you are reusing the same pot for the next step, empty the lamb and sauce into a bowl.
Step 4: Assemble! & stew
a. Put a little bed of potato at the bottom (imagine it soaking up all the flavors, and repeat the following layers:
- meat sauce
- cheese *
Top off with some cheese.
* I didn’t have enough shredded cheese on hand and instead cut up some Jarlsberg for the bottom cheese layer. But it worked! It lent a chewy, elastic, swiss-cheese-like texture to the moussaka.
b. Pour 1 cup of broth into the pot. Put the pot back on the grill and cook for 15-20 min uncovered.
Slide it off and serve!
I regret the inelegant appearance of the final plate… I blame darkness and/or hunger. But it was deelicious. And look!–string lights.