Recently, I received a request for a meat-n-potato type dish for someone who doesn’t eat vegetables. Not judging. I am sure they have their reasons. Rather than fussing about it, I took it upon myself to go as fancy as I could with the meat-n-potato idea, as it sounded pretty challenging.
My first thought was a shepherd’s pie. But shepherd’s pie’s whole charm is reliant on the cheerful carrots and peas peeking through the rich meat gravy under the blanket of mashed potatoes, and without them the shepherd’s pie would just not be the same. The next idea I tossed was a stew — it’s like a hundred and fifty degrees outside for Chef’s sake, who would think about a stew in this weather!
Having considered and dismissed a few more options I thought myself stuck. Too mushy, too hot, too heavy, too vegetable-rich, too boring. And then I thought to myself, hmm… why not make a Moussaka? I’ve been wanting to make this rich traditional Mediterranean dish for ages, just didn’t find the right amount of time (or courage). Moussaka, at least it’s Greek version, is a pie or a bake made with eggplants, inter-layered with potatoes and meaty sauce. It’s drenched in Bechamel sauce and baked. However, I found, there are other versions of Moussaka, particularly a Croatian spin called Musaka od Krumpira or Potato Moussaka, which calls for potatoes and meat only, and features a rich custard in place of Bechamel.
The part I didn’t particularly like about Croatian option was the meat layer — it appeared to be quite simplistic and quick-whipped, which would bring me smack to square one with meat and potatoes — same-old boring flavor combo, just layered differently. And here is where it got interesting. I decided to make a richer, more flavor-packed sauce, and leave the rest of the recipe as is. My choice, based on the options I had in the pantry, fell onto Bolognese — a traditional meat and tomato paste sauce with well developed, carefully integrated flavors. Bolognese takes time and patience to prepare, but it’s well worth the effort — you can use it a wide variety of dishes. It freezes like a trooper loosing nothing of its flavor when thawed. Should you ever decide to make it properly, I recommend opting in for a double batch, and freezing it for future use.
The secret of Bolognese is — there is no secret really — taking time to do it right. You take the time to make the mirepoix (flavor base), you take time to cook the ground meat through, and then you certainly take lots of time to cook the sauce down with all the fixings. The result will be amazing without fail.
Naturally, I couldn’t resist enhancing the flavor further by adding my favorite spices — a bit of cumin and ground cloves. This gave the sauce an elegant finish, in my opinion, but you are certainly free to do away with the spices, or experiment with your own combinations.
I did make the double batch of the Bolognese, as I was making two pies at once — one for the aforementioned anti-vegetarian recepient, and one for us. Below Bolognese recipe is for a double batch. If you are making one pie, save half of the sauce for later.
Potato Moussaka With Bolognese Sauce
Bolognese — double batch:
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen’s Lasagna Bolognese recipe)
- 1 large onion
- 2 carrots
- 3 stalks celery
- 3-4 cloves garlic
- 2-3 tbsp cooking fat (I used tallow)
- 2 lbs ground beef or lamb
- 1 cup (8 oz) tomato paste
- 2 cups full bodied red wine
- few sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1-2 bay leaves
- salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin (optional)
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves (optional)
Custard, Layering and Topping — for one pie:
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup half and half or mix 1/2 cup heavy cream and 1/2 cup milk
- 1/4 cup grated cheese, such as Pecorino, Romano, Parmesan, or crumbled Feta
- 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
- about 2 lbs of potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8″ lengthwise, use mandolin type slicer for even cutting
- Make mirepoix (flavor base). Chop carrots, onions, celery and garlic finely. Heat the cooking fat in a Dutch oven over medium-low. Add vegetables, sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over and saute for full 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until vegetables lose their color and brown nicely. Flavors will be very prominent and rich. It pays off to take care and time at this phase as vegetables will lend their aroma and flavor to everything else.
- Add ground meat at this point, breaking it down with a spatula and combining with the mirepoix. Sprinkle a bit more salt and pepper over, and cook slowly, until most of the juices evaporate and meat is nicely browned. 10-12 minutes is a must.
- Add tomato paste and stir it in thoroughly. Cook for another 4-5 minutes or so.
- Add red wine. Scrape the bottom of the pot with a spatula to deglaze. Stir well, and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Add just enough water to cover the meat, toss in thyme sprigs and bay leaves. Add cumin and cloves if desire.
- Bring the sauce to a boil, reduce heat to very low, check for seasoning and correct if needed.
- Simmer, uncovered, for at least 1-1/2 to 2 hrs, stirring occasionally, until sauce becomes thick, rich, and turns burgundy-brown in color. The final sauce should be about the thickness of pancake batter, rich but not greasy, all flavors well developed and blended. This is the state that only can be described as “you’ll know when it’s done, because you won’t be able to put the spoon down tasting it”. Just a little reminder, this batch of sauce is double size, so if you are not planning on using the entire batch, divide it in half and reserve one half for another time.
- Cover peeled and sliced potatoes with cold water in a pan, bring to a boil and boil for 5 minutes.
- Drain potatoes immediately and rinse in cold running water to prevent further cooking.
- Grease a lasagna pan or a 9×13″ casserole dish with cooking fat on the bottom and sides.
- Put down the a layer of potatoes, overlapping if needed to cover the bottom completely.
- Sprinkle salt and fresh ground pepper over the potatoes.
- Pour down half of the Bolognese over the potatoes and spread evenly with the back of the ladle.
- Repeat steps 11-12-13, then 11-12 again.
- Prepare the custard mix by whisking the eggs and half-and-half in a bowl.
- Pour the custard mix over the pie evenly distributing it all over.
- Spread the bread crumbs and the cheese over the top.
- Bake Moussaka at 375F for about 50 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through (fork tender) and top is nicely browned. Let stand for 10 minutes out of the oven before serving.