Bob Wilhelmy writes the Dining Out column for The American Israelite.

The Middle East is home to some remarkable recipes. Jewish diners-out here in Greater Cincy now are able to experience three more of them at Artemis Mediterranean Bistro. “We are making moussaka and some other recipes from the area around Turkey,” said owner/operator/chef Mehmet Coskum. 

The exterior signage at Artemis Mediterranean Bistro

Moussaka is another one of those dishes some of us tend to associate with a given locale or country, when in reality, its provenance likely is less certain. If someone asked me, my guess would have been that moussaka is of Greek origin. That could be correct, but probably not. The recipe is known by a variety of names and appears to be a common dish in the Balkans and the Levant (which includes Israel, along with Jordan, Syria, the Gaza strip, and points north to the Turkish border), as well as Egypt and points west along the Mediterranean coast of Africa. Seemingly, anywhere in that geographic area where eggplant grows, a moussaka-like dish is to be found.

The new moussaka, piping hot from the oven

My research tells me that there is no definitive recipe for this classically Middle Eastern specialty. Moussaka can feature meat or be vegetarian. If meaty, the mince can be beef or lamb or a combination of the two, and in Slavic countries the meat often is pork. Eggplant seems a universal ingredient and layering it with other ingredients is the pattern for most recipes I’ve seen. Again, Slavic countries such as Rumania and Bulgaria tend to be the outliers, where potatoes may take the place of eggplant. 

So, eggplant. But then the fun starts. Some are topped with a creamy, saucy béchamel, some not. Tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, potatoes, onions, garlic, custard, breadcrumbs, cinnamon, oregano, allspice — selections of these ingredients can be part of this wide-ranging dish. At Artemis, the recipe is a Greek-Turkish combo of sorts.  “We have more vegetables in ours, with the layers of the eggplant, then potatoes and zucchini. The slices of eggplant and zucchini we do in the air fryer to soften them and to take out some of the moisture. Everything is seasoned with salt and pepper and olive oil. Then we do the ground beef, cooking it with onions and garlic and some chopped tomatoes. While the meat is cooking, we put in some cinnamon sticks (which adds a special depth of flavor, but just a hint of it) and a bit of sugar to balance the acidity of the tomatoes. And we season — oregano and allspice. When it’s finished and all the flavors are together, the dish is layered, and the béchamel sauce is added.

Béchamel sauce normally features dairy since milk or cream is used as a liquefier in making the thick flour-based sauce. But to accommodate Jewish diners wanting kosher-style choices, Coskum uses non-dairy almond milk as a substitute, making the sauce dairy free.

Once assembled, the dish is baked. When ordered, the entrée is finished with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese on top, but Jewish diners need only ask for a portion with no cheese. This week marks the first that moussaka is available at Artemis. Looks delicious, doesn’t it!

The kibbe, a Levantine staple made from bulgar wheat

Those “other recipes” Coskum spoke of includes kibbe and Lebanese Fattoush salad. Unlike moussaka, both of these dishes seem to have come from the Levantine region. Kibbe, which has been a part of Arab cuisine for many centuries, features bulgar wheat, also known as cracked wheat. The wheat is pounded along with a mixture of spiced meat. The pasty result is shaped into “footballs” or “torpedoes” and then fried, grilled, or baked. “The meat is done like we do it for the moussaka, spiced the same, and we deep fry the kibbe. It’s a hot appetizer.

The fattoush salad, a Middle East favorite

“Also, we are doing the Fattoush salad, which is Lebanese, and has a lot of good stuff in it, including crispy bread,” he said. The “good stuff” is classic salad fare — tomatoes, olives, onions, scallions, cucumber, celery, feta cheese, mixed with spring greens, and the crispy bread is added at the very last moment before dressing and serving. The dressing for Fattoush salad is a tangy sweet-sour vinaigrette made with olive oil, vinegar, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses.

See you at Artemis Mediterranean Bistro!