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Everybody knows moussaka – it’s one of the most popular Greek dishes, along with souvlaki and Greek salad. In Greece, it’s commonly written in English, often in large letters, outside touristy tavernas. But many people don’t know that moussaka, which is traditionally made in summer, when eggplants are in season, has a cousin named melitzanes papoutsakia (eggplant papoutsakia).

This dish is similar to moussaka but comes together much more quickly: Halved eggplants are baked, stuffed with a beef sauce (like the one used in moussaka) and then topped with a kind of Greek-style béchamel made with eggs.

The Greek word papoutsakia (παπουτσάκια) is a diminutive for shoes, meaning “little shoes” – a nod perhaps to the fact that the halved stuffed eggplants have a shoe-like look to them. The word papoutsi (παπούτσι) derives from the Persian word papus, which was adopted by the Ottomans (papuç), who in turn introduced it into the Greek language. Native to India, eggplants made their way to Europe on account of the Arabs and the Byzantines; particularly in Greece and the Balkans, the use of eggplant was widespread during Ottoman rule. Nowadays, the eggplant plays an important role in many traditional Greek dishes.

Both moussaka and papoutsakia were traditionally topped with yogurt. The introduction of a béchamel sauce is usually traced to Nikolaos Tselemendes, a Greek chef from the island of Sifnos and a cookbook author who was the first to re-define Greek cuisine in the early 20th century. He incorporated a lot of French influences – fashionable at the time – into the Greek cuisine.

My version of papoutsakia, however, goes back to its roots with a yogurt topping (albeit with a twist). I like making these dishes feel light when you eat them, even more so since they are mostly consumed during the hot summer months. For the sauce, I typically use beef, specifically ground rump, which has just the right amount of fat (around 20 percent). It’s easy, though, to make this dish vegetarian – you can replace the beef with chopped mushrooms, soya mince or even lentils. What really makes the sauce is the use of fresh herbs – almost any herb will go well with this, but parsley, basil, mint and cilantro are all good choices. I always use parsley and usually combine it with basil. This time I used purple basil that I got from my local farmers’ market. When making the yogurt topping, I add crumbled feta because feta and eggplant are a match made in heaven! Finally, I top my “little shoes” with grated graviera cheese, which melts and becomes a crunchy top layer to die for.

Melitzanes Papoutsakia

For the eggplants
5 medium-sized eggplants
Salt
Black pepper
Olive oil for brushing

For the meat sauce
500 gr ground beef (rump)
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 carrot, grated
600 gr finely chopped or grated fresh tomatoes (no skin) or canned chopped tomatoes
1 ½ tsp tomato paste
½ cup dry red wine
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt
Black pepper
2 full tablespoons chopped purple basil (or regular basil)
1 full tablespoon chopped parsley

For the yogurt topping
270 gr Greek yogurt
90 gr crumbled feta
2 eggs
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Black pepper to taste

70 gr grated graviera cheese from Naxos island (may be replaced with grated parmesan or pecorino)

Wash the eggplants and cut them in half lengthwise. Salt them generously and let them stand for about 20 minutes. This will help remove any bitterness and moisture.

Preheat your oven at 190 C. Wash the eggplants well to rinse off the salt. Line a baking tray with parchment paper. Score the eggplant with a knife around the skin (not too close to tear) and then cut diagonal lines in one direction and then the other to create a diamond pattern (see above photo). Brush them with olive oil, add some salt (but not too much) and pepper, and place them upside down (skin facing up) on the parchment paper. Bake for about 30-35 minutes until the inside of the eggplant is soft enough to mash with a fork and lightly golden.

Meanwhile, make the meat sauce. Place a large, deep skillet on medium high heat. Add in the olive oil and sauté the onion and garlic until soft and glossy. Add in the carrot and bay leaf and stir for another couple of minutes. Add in the ground meat and “break it” as you stir to prevent any big meat lumps from forming. Once the meat is all browned, add in the wine, and when most of it has evaporated, add in the tomatoes and tomato paste. Stir, season and add the cinnamon stick. Simmer for about 20-30 minutes until most of the liquid cooks off. Ten minutes before it’s done, stir in the oregano. Remove from heat and stir in the chopped herbs. Set aside.

Remove the eggplants from the oven. Flip them and allow them to cool down for five minutes.

Meanwhile prepare the yogurt sauce. Beat the eggs, then add in the yogurt while whisking. Stir in the crumbled feta, black pepper and nutmeg.

Using a small fork press in the eggplant “meat” to create a hollow area. I like removing a bit from each eggplant, no more than a teaspoon, and I stir it into the meat sauce.

Stuff your eggplants with the meat sauce (after removing the cinnamon stick) and top with the yogurt sauce. Place them into a baking dish and sprinkle with the grated cheese. Bake for another 25-30 minutes until golden and crusty.

One final tip: Although it may sound weird, this dish (like most stuffed vegetable dishes) tastes even better when it is eaten at room temperature.

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