Although eggplant is the common vegetable used as a vessel, you can certainly use others. My grandma would often make these with various squashes, anything from zucchini to delicata. I didn’t start liking eggplant until I was older (and it’s still not my favorite, though I do enjoy it now, especially burnt and made into a dip with tahini or yogurt a la Ottolenghi) and I wasn’t sure what the kids would think, but they devoured these. It helps they are huge meatsauce fans and that bechamel is one of life’s greatest pleasures, I guess.
I typically make my Greek meatsauce with tomato paste but I wanted something slightly saucier for this so I used crushed tomatoes. I highly recommend the use of kefalotyri or mizithra but obviously not everyone has access to that. If you don’t, opt for a salty, sharp cheese like Pecorino Romano or a really good Parmesan. I must say I really miss the little Greek shop a couple blocks from my old place because I could just get mizithra to my heart’s desire. Moving away from it was big on the “con” list when it came to deciding whether to leave the city. 🙂
4 small eggplants (about 3.5-4 lbs. total)
1 Tbsp. olive oil1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb. ground lamb or beef, or a combination
1.5 cups crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1/8 – 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 heaping tsp. ground allspice
3 Tbsp. freshly chopped parsley
1 bay leaf
4 Tbsp. butter
1/2 cup all purpose flour
2 cups whole or 2% milk
2/3 cup finely grated kefalotyri, mizithra, or Pecorino Romano cheese, divided
2 egg yolks
freshly grated nutmeg to taste (I grate about 1/4 of a whole nutmeg in there)
Slice the eggplants in half lengthwise. Using a paring knife and a spoon, cut/scoop out the flesh of the eggplant, leaving about a 1/4″ border all around. Chop the flesh and set aside.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add enough oil to coat the bottom. Add the eggplants cut side down (you may need to do this in batches, so as not to overcrowd) and cook until browned, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook an additional 2 minutes or so, until browned and slightly soft (you don’t want them so soft that they lack structure). Place the eggplants cut side up on a large rimmed baking sheet or pan (line with foil for easier cleanup).
Next, make the meatsauce. Add up to a tablespoon of oil to the pan you seared the eggplants in (you may not need any at all). Add the onions and saute until tender. Stir in the beef or lamb, breaking up and cooking until browned (if you are using a fatty ground beef/lamb, you can drain some fat off at this point). Stir in the garlic and cook for a minute before adding the eggplant flesh, crushed tomatoes, water, cinnamon, allspice, parsley, bay, and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, partially covered, for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Meatsauce should be fairly thick.
Meanwhile, make bechamel. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Stir in the flour and make a roux, cooking for a few minutes until light golden brown. Slowly add the milk, whisking constantly. Bring the mixture up to just barely a bubble. Continue cooking (and stirring) until the mixture thickens and coats the back of a wooden spoon, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper (use a little less salt than you think, since you will still be adding cheese). Off the heat, stir in 1/2 cup of the cheese, yolks, and nutmeg.
Preheat the oven to 350º. Sprinkle the eggplant halves lightly with salt and pepper. Evenly divide the meat mixture between the eggplant halves, and then do the same with the bechamel. Sprinkle each piece with the remaining cheese (about 1/2 Tbsp. of cheese per eggplant half). Bake for 20 minutes, or until eggplant is tender. Preheat the broiler to high, and then pop the pan underneath for a couple minutes until bechamel is spotty browned (maybe a touch less than I have done here in the pic ;).