Feeding a family of four is challenging, even if two of the four are very small.  No, make that especially if two of them are very small.  Juggling pans on a hot stove while shackled by tiny, human leg-irons could be an Olympic event.  Serving a handsome, healthful, lovingly prepared plate of food and watching it get tossed to the floor by the toddler handful is character-building at best.

Like so many other aspects of parenting, raising enthusiastic, adventurous eaters is a long and delicate process.  I try to encourage my kids but not overwhelm them, be sensitive — but not a slave  — to their immature palates and fickle tastes, and keep a sense of humor.  I end up frustrated more often than I’d like, but the occasional (and invariably unpredictable) victory makes it all worthwhile.

Moussaka is one of those winners.  It’s the most versatile recipe in my repertoire, and I make it — or at least parts of it — all the time.    I’ll be honest:  it’s a fair amount of work.  But it’s work you can do ahead, whenever you have the chance, and you can make it in vast quantities for the freezer.  I roast pounds of sliced eggplant at the end of summer and freeze it (it’s almost as useful as tomato sauce — think lasagna, eggplant parmesan, involtini).  The lamb and bulgur filling freezes well, too, and makes a great stuffing for peppers or tomatoes.  The yogurt-feta sauce is easy and forgiving (and terrific in a spinach lasagna).  An assembled, unbaked moussaka freezes perfectly, and adapts to any size or shape pan.

Our son loves lamb and tomato but is allergic to dairy, so I make extra filling and serve it to him in a bowl over pasta, or sometimes top the casserole with mashed potatoes instead of yogurt and feta.  Our daughter loves anything cheesy and is a bean and legume fiend, so I often make a vegetarian version, substituting lentils for lamb.  Other grains — such as cooked brown rice — could stand in for the bulgur.  And you can always keep some of the cooked ingredients separate for kids who can’t abide one part of their dinner touching another.

Moussaka

Yield:  Makes two 8×8 casseroles, serving at least 8

For eggplant:

2 large or 3 small eggplants, peeled and sliced 1/3″ thick

About 1/3 c. olive oil, for brushing

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For filling:

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 lb. ground lamb

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 onions, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

1/4 tsp. ground allspice

2 28-oz. cans plum tomatoes, broken up a bit with your hands, with their juice

1 c. medium or coarse bulgur wheat

1/4 c. chopped fresh mint

For sauce:

1 1/2 tbsp. butter

3 tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 1/2 c. milk

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

3/4 c. crumbled feta cheese (about 3 oz.)

1 1/2 c. plain yogurt

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Arrange eggplant slices in a single layer on 2 or 3 lightly oiled, foil-lined baking sheets.  Brush tops with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake until browned on the bottom, about 15 minutes (switch trays halfway through so eggplant on bottom rack doesn’t burn).  Set aside.  (You can refrigerate or freeze the eggplant at this point.)

To make filling, heat a large pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Drizzle in oil, then add lamb, using the back of a spoon to break up large pieces.  Cook until browned, 8-10 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, remove meat to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.  Pour off any excess fat from the pot, leaving about 1 tbsp.  Reduce heat to medium, add onions to pot, and cook until tender, about 8 minutes.  Stir in garlic and cook 1 minute more.  Add allspice, tomatoes, bulgur, and mint.  Return meat to pot and stir to combine.  Raise heat, bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, covered, about 20 minutes or until bulgur is tender.  (Once cooled, you can refrigerate or freeze the filling.)

To make sauce, melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk in flour and cook, stirring, about 2 minutes.  Gradually pour in milk, whisking to encorporate (don’t fret over a few lumps — the sauce will be going into the food processor).  Add garlic cloves and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer, whisking frequently,  for a few minutes, until sauce is thickened.  Pour sauce into the bowl of a food processor.  Add nutmeg, feta, and yogurt, and process until smooth.

To assemble, lightly oil two 8×8-inch baking pans.  Line the bottoms with half the eggplant.  Layer half the filling on top of eggplant, then remaining eggplant, then remaining filling, then pour the sauce over the tops.  (At this point, you can cover the pans with foil and refrigerate or freeze.)  Bake at 425 degrees until top is browned and bubbling, about 35 min.

Notes:

You can bake the frozen casserole straight from the freezer at 375 degrees for about 1 hour.  Or thaw for a night or two in the fridge and bake at 425 for 40-45 minutes.

Make it vegetarian: Omit the lamb.  Stir 1 1/2 to 2 c. cooked lentils (I like the French green variety because they hold their shape) into the filling along with the tomatoes.

Make it vegan: Use lentils instead of lamb (see above) and top with 4 c. of mashed potatoes instead of cheese sauce.  Freeze casserole without potato topping (potatoes will make it watery) — add potatoes just before baking.

Make it gluten-free: Try substituting 1 – 2 c. par-cooked rice, millet, quinoa or other grain, or even diced potatoes for the bulgur.

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