This weekend I hosted my first solo Shabbat dinner (my roomie was out of town). It was fairly last minute, and very low key, but I figured I had to make a good impression on my guests (and myself) by serving a delicious meal. I should note that the meal itself was a joint effort. But the main dish was all mine, and in my head, it would either make me or break me as the best hostess ever. So obviously I had to try something I’ve never made before, the more complicated the better.
Surfing through the internet and my cookbooks for some ideas, I stumbled across a recipe for a vegan moussaka in my absolute favorite vegan cookbook, Veganomicon (it’s amazing, check it out). Moussaka is a Greek dish that is traditionally made with ground lamb, smothered in béchamel sauce, and baked. This particular vegan recipe featured a tofu pine nut cream topping, which I’m sure is absolutely delicious, but I didn’t want vegan – I wanted vegetarian. I was having people over who had never been over before, had never tasted my cooking before, and I didn’t want to scare them away forever with a completely vegan meal (it just worked out that nothing else had dairy in it). Also, what’s a moussaka without some kind of béchamel sauce topping? I was already forgoing the meat part of it, better not to go too crazy on my version of this classic.
So then I looked around the internet, visited all my favorite recipe sites, and eventually found an interesting take on béchamel sauce ala Bobby Flay. This one involving goat cheese, which made me melt a little on the inside because I love goat cheese (who doesn’t?). But it still called for eggs, and at this point on my road to veganism, I don’t eat eggs (long story short, I think they’re gross). I also don’t drink milk, another key ingredient in béchamel sauce, but that one is easier to substitute. Then I found a vegan béchamel sauce over at VeganYumYum, and I figured I could use that as a guide for an egg-free sauce. At this point, I should admit that I really had a little too much fun looking up all these recipes.
Equipped with 3 different, yummy sounding recipes, I sat down to combine them into something that could possibly resemble a delicious vegetarian moussaka (and satisfy some of the weird eating habits that I’ve developed). I’m just warning you, this recipe is not for the faint of heart. It’s time consuming. And some people might balk at the béchamel sauce, which isn’t the most nutritious thing. But you see, I don’t really have anything better to do with my Fridays, so I figured, why not try something so time consuming? Plus, I was serving this with healthy salads, so I allowed myself the decadence of the béchamel sauce. Above all else, this recipe gave me an excuse to use my mandolin, which is still new enough to be exciting.
The good news is, the time and effort that you put into this recipe are totally worth it. The end result has layers of vegetables that manage to retain texture yet still melt in your mouth, and the creamy sauce on top has just a hint of goat cheese flavor. Excuse me while I go warm up some leftovers. Just talking about this dish makes me want to eat some (by the way, the leftovers heat up nicely and still taste delicious!)
Anyway, here’s the recipe I pulled together:
Vegetable Moussaka with a Cheesy Béchamel Sauce
For the vegetable layers:
1 lb eggplant (1 large one should do it)
1 lb zucchini (2 zucchini)
2 lbs russet-type baking potatoes (about 2 good sized potatoes)
1/4 cup olive oil (or less, if you’re using the spray bottle method below)Salt
For the tomato sauce:
Olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 cup red wine
28 oz. (1 large can or two regular sized ones) crushed tomatoes, with juice
2 teaspoons oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon (sounds weird, but totally makes the sauce)
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
For the cheesy béchamel sauce:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, butter substitute, or olive oil (oh the beauty of versatility…)
1/2 cup flour
2 1/2 cups milk (or almond milk or soy milk, I used almond milk)
1 bay leaf
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
10 oz. soft goat cheese
Zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp. lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste (you likely won’t need much more salt, if any, thanks to the cheese)
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
1. Deal with your veggies: Wash and trim stem from eggplant and zucchini (no need to peel them). Scrub and peel potato. Slice the eggplant, zucchini and potato into approximately 1/4 inch thick slices (woo hoo! Mandolin time!). If you think you need to salt your eggplants and drain them or whatever it is you do, go ahead and do this now. Personally, I’ve never done this “essential” step in cooking with eggplant, but I have had enough way-too-salty eggplant parms in my life to assume that this step is completely unnecessary.
Line your baking sheets with parchment paper (or not, but the paper makes it easier to get them off later, plus if your sheets don’t already look gross, it’ll keep them from looking that way). Lay your sliced veggies down, keeping each veggie to its own sheet. Coat the veggies with a bit of olive oil (either drizzle it on and toss to coat, or pull out a Misto/spritzer/spray bottle and go to town, just make sure to get both sides). Pinch a little salt over the veggies (just a little, and don’t add it to the eggplant if you salted it already) and toss those veggies in the oven.
The veggies should be in a single layer on the sheets. Depending on your cookie sheet and/or oven sizes, you might need to do this in stages. The eggplant and zucchini should be in there for about 15 minutes (until they’re tender), but let the potatoes stay in until the edges start to brown a bit (20-25 minute). Then remove and let your veggies cool so you can handle them.
Try not to snack on these too much, you will need them all
2. Make your tomato sauce: Heat the olive oil in a sauce pan/small pot, add the chopped onion, and sweat until translucent and just starting to brown. Add the garlic and little it sizzle for about half a minute before stirring. Make sure your garlic doesn’t burn!
Fact: The smell of cooking onions is one of the best smells in the world
Add the wine and simmer for a few minutes, letting it reduce slightly and deglazing anything that stuck to the bottom of the pan thus far.
Stir in the crushed tomatoes, oregano, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Partially cover while your pot of deliciousness simmers away on medium-low heat for the next 15 minutes. Stir occasionally. Once the sauce has reduced slightly, and the 15 minutes have gone by, turn off the heat, take out the bay leaf, and adjust the salt and pepper content to your liking.
While the tomato sauce simmers…
3. Make your goat cheese béchamel sauce! Melt the butter/heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until it forms a pale and smooth sauce/paste. It should take about 2 minutes, and yes you need this much because your béchamel should be quite thick.
Still whisking constantly, add the milk (or milk substitute), making sure there are no clumps. Then add the bay leaf and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally. You’ll know it’s thickened if you can run your finger down the back of your spoon and the sides don’t run.
When it’s cooled a bit, whisk in the goat cheese, lemon zest, and lemon juice until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste (again, go easy on the salt, thanks to both the goat cheese in the sauce and the layer of parmesan that will go on top of it).
Note – if you want to make this vegan…go for it! Just make sure you use almond or soy milk and don’t add the cheese – it will still be creamy and delicious.
4. Still with me? Good! Now, put it all together! Grab a 9 x 13 baking dish. Pour 1/4 cup of the tomato sauce into the bottom of the dish (it should be enough to lightly coat the bottom). Then start layering your vegetables. I recommend this order:
Half the eggplant
Half the potatoes
Half the remaining tomato sauce
Half the breadcrumbs
All the zucchini
The rest of the eggplant
The rest of the potatoes
The rest of the tomato sauce
The rest of the bread crumbs
Once all your veggie, sauce, and breadcrumb layers are down, pour the béchamel sauce over the top and use a spatula to spread it out evenly. Finally, sprinkle the parmesan cheese all over the top, and bake for 40-50 minutes, uncovered, at 400 F until the top is brown and bubbly. Allow the dish to cool for at least 10 minutes. Garnish with some parsley or oregano, slice, and serve!
If you’re going vegan with this, don’t put the parmesan on top. The béchamel sauce should still get all delicious and bubbly on top.
So….was all the hard work worth it?