LONDON — It’s a fine line, when you cook, between success and failure. I am always surprised by how tipping the balance in a dish can so easily transform it from delectable to inedible. How many times have you oversalted or undercooked a dish? When did you last lament wasting a fistful of pine nuts or a beautiful piece of fish, just because of a careless extra minute or two in the pan?
Eggplants are particularly prone to such disasters. I know some pretty confident cooks who, after a couple of memorable failures, wouldn’t touch them with a pole. It’s not that they are that hard to cook (though they do take a bit of practice to get right). It has more to do with how unmitigated these failures are. A limp, gray, rubbery, undercooked chunk of eggplant could easily put you off for life. Likewise, a slice that has spent too much time in a frying pan with oil that wasn’t hot enough, going dark and bitter and terribly fatty, wouldn’t turn anyone into a fan.Eggplant, lamb and onion are all cooked together first.CreditAndrew Scrivani for The New York Times. Food Styling: Iah Pinkney
On the other hand, well-prepared eggplant — cooked through and nicely browned on the outside, full of flavor after absorbing just the right amount of oil or sauce — is heavenly. Balanced with other components, which add texture and cut through its natural richness, an eggplant can turn into the most thrilling vegetable around. I can think of countless examples, but the one that best illustrates this point is moussaka, the eggplant-and-meat dish from Greece, with variations across the Balkans and the Middle East.
A good moussaka has all the qualities that allow eggplant to shine:vegetables that are thoroughly cooked but keep some texture; a layer of browned lamb for meatiness and texture; a cover of creamy béchamel; and enough tomato acidity to offset the richness. A bad one — well, it can have a lasting effect. I can tell you this with confidence because I was unfortunate enough to experience this last summer, and it happened in Greece, of all places.The mixture is topped with a yogurt-based mixture, dotted with pine nuts.CreditAndrew Scrivani for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Iah Pinkney
It was while I was staying with my family in a house we rented on one of the Cyclades islands. The moussaka in question was bought in a little taverna by the side of the road, which also sold crates of fresh homegrown vegetables. The picture-perfect scene was amplified by the warmth of the operation: a grandmother in the kitchen, a mother waiting on tables and selling vegetables, and a young son helping to fill up the shopping bags.
This was so promising, we didn’t even bother getting anything else for dinner, apart from the obligatory Greek salad. This salad was all we ended up having. The moussaka we so wanted to love was left behind, quietly, on everyone’s plates; bits of unctuous eggplant and tiny mince drenched in a mixture of runny béchamel, lamb fat and tomato sauce. The balance was all wrong, and no amount of good will, or culinary skill, could have saved it.
This is the first time I’ve revisited moussaka since. My recipe, which is loosely inspired by that dish, is safer than the original, particularly if you harbor a bit of eggplant phobia. Cooking all the elements in one roasting pan, though not standard, will allow you to judge your progress as you go, addressing imbalances when you need to. Follow the instructions, keep your eyes open, taste on occasion, and you’ll find yourself firmly placed on the road to success.