Niko’s Moussaka

“Jesse, my friend, I love you like a brother, you know that, even though we are not even the same species because you belong to a people who seethed in ignorance until my people, MY people, the Greeks, the Hellenes, brought to you, like a torch in the hands of a strong, beautiful god, the gifts of knowledge and culture.

“When my people built the Parthenon, yours were stuffing sheep shit in rock walls to keep out the wind; when Homer first sang of the anger of Achilles, your ancestors were banging on skin drums and shrieking like chimpanzees; when Praxiteles discovered Apollo in living stone, yours were whittling dice from acorns.”

“Hector,” I said, “Your divine radiance blinds me.”

“Do not mock me, you insolent ass. You asked me to teach you how to make moussaka as my great-uncle Nikolaos, so I must make you properly respectful of the gift. Uncle Niko they say he made Greek cooking a Frenchified farce, but he threw away trash Turks and Slaves put on our plates and brought refinement to this beautiful old dish. Here, I’ll show you.”

Trim stalks and bottoms of 2 large eggplants, peel and slice to ½ inch. Soak in salty water for about 20 minutes, and dry on paper towels. Peel 4 potatoes and slice to ¼ inch. Fry potatoes and eggplant in olive oil until just soft. Set both aside on paper towels to drain. Add oil if needed and sauté two diced white onions until translucent. Add about a pound and half of lean ground beef to the onions in the frying pan, mix well to break up the meat, add two cloves minced garlic, and an 8-oz. can of tomato sauce. Mix very well, then lower heat and simmer uncovered, stirring, until liquid is reduced. Set aside.

Melt ½ stick butter, add ¼ cup plain flour, mix well and cook over medium low heat until it stops bubbling. Gradually add four cups whole milk, stirring continually, until quite thick. Cool and incorporate two beaten egg yolks. Set aside.

Grease the sides and bottoms of a large casserole. Cover the bottom with a layer of potato slices, add a layer of eggplant slices, and half of the meat mixture. Cover the meat layer with remaining potato slices, then eggplant slices, and spread remaining meat mixture out evenly to cover the eggplant layer. Top with evenly with white sauce and bake at 350F for 40 minutes or so.