My gluten-free Lower-Carb Beef Eggplant Moussaka Casserole has a couple non-traditional elements that make it truly special.
Greece has been on my bucket list of travel destinations for forever now. When I think of Greece, I think of ancient ruins. The brilliant blue of the Aegean Sea, contrasted by the pristine white houses. And the food. Of course the food.
I admit, my knowledge of Greek food is limited to my experiences at Greek diners and homemade meals at my Greek friend’s house in high school, which were actually quite a bit more authentic than my diner experiences. One of my favorites was always Moussaka (and always Saganaki, because there is nothing better than crispy coated warm melty cheese).
There are quite a few variations of this dish. Some include potato, some have eggplant. Most have a cinnamon, black pepper, allspice-scented tomato-based meat sauce (frequently lamb, but sometimes beef). Quite a few versions feature a thick Béchamel or Mornay on top. Today I’m sharing my absolute favorite version, which I developed to suite my own tastes.
I go with all eggplant instead of a mix of eggplant and potato, or other veggies (like zucchini) because it’s such a great complement to the other flavors here. For my meat sauce, I use beef because I’ve never been a big fan of lamb (by all means, use lamb if that’s your preference though). I make a super easy sauce from scratch that literally only requires a little patience, but no specialized skill. Of course I go with cinnamon, black pepper, and allspice, but what really takes my meat sauce to the next level is Herbes de Provence, which is a blend that (according to Wikipedia) typically contains savory, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sometimes lavender. In the past I used to use just rosemary, thyme, and oregano, but one day when I found myself out of both fresh and dried, I found my little jar of Herbes de Provence. I realized that it has the three herbs I normally would use, and I thought why not give it a try. I haven’t looked back since! Also, I deglaze the pan with a fruity, full-bodied red wine, which adds another level of complexity to the dish but isn’t necessarily a traditional component (as far as I know, anyway).
You’ll need to cook the meat sauce until it’s thick like this.
Also, instead of a Béchamel sauce, I like to use more of a savory custard as my top layer so there’s no need for all-purpose flour. I use a bit of Cabot Alpine Cheddar because otherwise, I’d need to use a combination of Gruyere and sharp white Cheddar to the get the flavor profile I’m going for. If you’re not familiar with this cheese, let me just tell you that it’s pretty fantastic. It has a lovely nutty flavor, and at the same time is creamy-textured with a slight grana similar to Parmesan.
I have literally made this dish twice in the past month (which is unheard of for me, especially because it makes a big batch so I’ve been eating it a lot!), so that should tell you how much I love it. It’s one of those dishes that is so much more than the sum of its parts; everything comes together for a perfect marriage of flavors.
- 1½ lbs (680 g) ground beef (or lamb, if that’s your thing)
- 1 large onion, diced
- 10 large cloves garlic, minced or crushed
- 1½ cups (355 ml) Cabernet Sauvignon (or another fruity, dry, full-bodied red wine)
- 1 (14.5 oz/411 g) can diced tomatoes, with juices
- 1 (6 oz/170 g) can tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon Herbes de Provence mix
- 1½ teaspoons coarse sea salt
- ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¾ teaspoon ground allspice
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 2 cups (475 ml) water or low-sodium beef stock
- 2½ to 3 lbs (1.13 to 1.4 kg) eggplant (about 2 very large eggplants), sliced horizontally into ⅓-inch thick rounds
- 6 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and black pepper
- 2 cups (475 ml) heavy cream
- ¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt
- 3 large eggs + 2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
- 4 oz (115 g) Gruyere, sharp white Cheddar, or a mixture of both, shredded and tossed with 1 teaspoon tapioca starch (see Note)
- For the Meat Sauce: Add the beef, onion, and garlic to a large, deep-sided skillet over high heat; cook (uncovered) until the meat is browned well, about 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the wine and cook (uncovered) until the liquid is mostly evaporated off, about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, Herbes de Provence, salt, cinnamon, allspice, black pepper, and water. Bring up to a boil, and then cover the skillet, turn the heat down to simmer, and cook until it’s a rich, thick sauce (see photo in the post above for how the meat sauce should look), stirring occasionally. It took me about 2 hours, and I uncovered the sauce for the last 30 minutes to help speed the process up a bit. Note that if you uncover the sauce you have to stir it quite a bit more frequently.
- For the Eggplant (make this while the meat sauce is cooking): Once the eggplant is sliced, sprinkle a little salt on each slice and place it in a colander in the sink; let it sit for 15 minutes. Rinse the eggplant under cool running water, gently wring out each slice, and arrange the slices in even layers on 2 large baking sheets. Drizzle the olive oil on top and use your hands to coat each slice. Sprinkle on a little black pepper and roast in a 425F oven until the slices are tender and starting to turn golden, about 35 minutes, rotating the trays and flipping the slices over once halfway through.
- For the White Cheese Custard Sauce (make this toward the end while the meat sauce is cooking): Heat the cream and salt in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until steaming. To temper the eggs, gradually whisk ½ cup of hot cream into the eggs, starting out with just a drop at a time, until the full ½ cup is incorporated. Turn the heat down to low; add the tempered egg mixture to the hot cream and heat until steaming, and then and whisk in the shredded cheese a handful at a time until the sauce is smooth. Turn off the heat.
- To Assemble and Cook the Casserole: Preheat the oven to 375F. Spread half of the eggplant out in a 5-quart casserole dish and spread half of the meat mixture on top; repeat. Pour the sauce on top. Bake until the sauce is set and starting to turn golden, about 35 to 45 minutes. Let the casserole cool for 15 minutes before cutting and serving.
What Kind of Cheese to Use: You could go with a mix of Gruyere and sharp white Cheddar, but I like to use Cabot’s Alpine Cheddar because I'm all about simplification, and I feel like it's a melding of those two flavors.