I’ve mentioned this before: I have a thing for casseroles. It started in grade school, when I read a bunch of books set in the 1950s—in particular, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, which was about a twinkle-eyed, hump-backed woman who lives in an upside-down house and finds creative solutions to children’s problems. (For example: one little girl hates taking baths. Mrs P-W suggests her parents let her loll in her own filth until she’s built up a half-inch rind of grime on her skin—whereupon the parents sneak into her room at night and sprinkle her with radish seeds. Plants sprout, the little girl freaks out, and bath-time becomes regular :) The kids in these books were always eating casseroles for dinner. They hated them. But for me—raised on a steady diet of Chinese food—casseroles sounded like the most exotic and delicious food in the world. I hardly knew what they were, yet I longed to try them.
My casserole curiosity followed me—unsatisfied—all the way to my very first apartment in New York. One of the first things I bought for my kitchen (if that’s what you call a stove wedged in the corner of a studio) was a casserole dish. White and sturdy, it has now survived seven moves (I just counted), traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard, across oceans and continents. Was ten dollars ever better spent? I filled it with lasagna, eggplant parmesan, and macaroni and cheese, but the bubbling, golden-crusted casseroles of my dreams evaded me.
If we were conducting a word association test, right now you’d be shouting “cream-of-mushroom soup!” Yes, casseroles get a bad rap, typically laced as they are with Campbell’s. But recently I’ve noticed that the homemade versions have been making a comeback. A few weeks ago, this New York Times article offered three unusual recipes (as well as one for great quick pickles). And a few months ago, a friend gave me a copy of a new cookbook, Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, which has a whole chapter on from-scratch casseroles.
Moosewood is synonymous with vegetarian food, and I love their recipes because they’re like the best comfort food: simple, satisfying, unafraid to add butter, cream, or cheese when the occasion is right. This book gathers the most requested recipes from their restaurant in Ithaca, NY, where I will eat one day, come hell or high water. I have enjoyed orange-scented Cuban black beans, Rumbledethumps (a cheesy broccoli-laced version of bubble and squeak, which—I hesitate to confess—paired beautifully with a pork chop), made two batches of the mushroom piroshki, and can’t wait to try the classic tofu burgers. But my favorite recipe so far has been this country moussaka, which is one of those magical dishes that turns ordinary ingredients into something more special then their individual parts.
There are slices of roasted eggplant and courgette, a spiced tomato sauce, a sprinkle of raw couscous—which cooks among the layers and adds almost a meaty texture—generous crumbles of feta, and a crowning cap of béchamel. I’ll be honest, all those elements involve a bit—okay, a lot—of extra work. But none of it’s very difficult or fiddly and you can make most of them a few days in advance, before assembling.
Before I leave you to this recipe, may I end on a pedantic note? I was curious about the history of casseroles, so I did some research in the Penguin Companion to Food. Though the word “casserole” has been used to refer to a ladle, or pan (as in French), it originates from a classical Greek term for “cup.” Greek! Could a casserole of moussaka be more apt?
Moosewood’s Country Moussaka
Adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Favorites
3 lbs eggplant
1 1/2 lbs zucchini
8 oz feta cheese
4 tablespoons raw couscous
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon crushed red chili
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
Prepare the vegetables: Pre-heat the oven to 400ºF. Slice the eggplant and zucchini into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Brush them lightly with olive oil. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper, arrange the slices in a single layer, and bake until tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce. In a saucepan, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, stirring until fragrant, then the bell peppers, cooking until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, oregano, cinnamon and crushed chili. Simmer over low heat for about 20 minutes, until the sauce has thickened slightly. Taste and season.
Prepare the béchamel sauce: In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter. Stir in the flour and cook for 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the milk, and cook until the sauce has thickened and is starting to bubble around the edges. Remove from the heat and stir in the nutmeg, salt, and beaten eggs.
Assemble the casserole: Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Grease a ceramic baking dish. Pour half the tomato sauce into the baking dish. Layer the eggplant slices. Sprinkle over half the feta cheese and 2 tablespoons of couscous. Add the rest of the sauce, then cover with the zucchini slices, the remainder of the feta cheese and couscous. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top and smooth with a spatula. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake uncovered until golden and bubbly, 50-60 minutes. If you bake this ahead of time, cover the dish loosely with foil and rewarm in a 350ºF oven, for 45-50 minutes.