Moussaka is one of my family’s favourite dishes and I make it quite often. I’ve also got into the habit of making enough to put together a couple of small individual ones to freeze. Making moussaka from scratch is quite a long job so having one ready for the oven stored in the freezer is a great treat on a night when I don’t feel like cooking or don’t have much time. As for entertaining, moussaka is a very forgiving dish time wise as it can be made in advance and will wait happily for a few hours before going into the oven. Then once it’s cooked, it will also tolerate well being kept warm in a low oven if the meal time is delayed.
It’s my son Jonathan’s birthday today and daughter Nicola and her wife Rachael were coming down from Birmingham for a family meal. I thought preparing a favourite moussaka would go down well and we wouldn’t have to worry too much about timing. But Rachael is a vegetarian, so how could I make a vegetarian version for her? The answer was to substitute Puy lentils for the beef mince (traditionally, lamb is more often used in Greece but I prefer beef). I’d never tried this before but was confident it would work well. I used my usual recipe, an old and classic Claudia Roden one (click here) that I’ve been making for years, and I made the vegetarian version in exactly the same way, except for the meat to lentil substitution.
Puy Lentil Moussaka
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- extra virgin olive oil
- 250g Puy lentils
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3 medium tomatoes, skinned and chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato puree
- small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 1-2 aubergines
- 50g butter
- 50g plain flour
- 500ml milk
- 2 egg yolks
- salt & pepper
Prepare the sauce base first. Fry the onion in about 1-2 tablespoons olive oil until soft. Add the Puy lentils, cinnamon, chopped tomato, tomato puree and parsley. Stir and cover with water. Bring to the boil and cook for about 20-25 minutes until the lentils are cooked through and most of the water has been absorbed. If it dries out before the lentils are tender, then add a little more hot water.
When they’re ready, season with salt and pepper. You have to be careful about salting pulses early – a lot of things, beans etc., won’t soften if the salt goes in at the beginning. Puy lentils are generally OK, but I just prefer to not take chances and salt them at the end once they’re tender. Now transfer to a shallow ovenproof dish.
While the lentils are cooking, prepare the aubergines. You may find 1 aubergine is enough but I used 3 for my two large and two small moussakas. Traditionally they are fried in oil but I now griddle them so the dish doesn’t end up too oily. I slice the aubergine into roughly 1cm slices, brush with oil and put on to a hot griddle. I brush oil over the top and then turn to cook the other side when the bottom side is done. Transfer to kitchen towel to drain. Then lay the aubergine slices across the lentils.
Here are my vegetarian, meat and two small meat moussakas ready and waiting for the béchamel topping.
I’d made the two kinds side by side at the same time, chopping onions and tomatoes for both. Now for the béchamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and stir well into a smooth roux. Now slowly add the milk, a little at a time, stirring well with each addition and beating to keep smooth. You might not need all the milk. Stop adding it when you have a smooth but still slightly thickened sauce. Remove from the heat and beat in the egg yolks one at a time.
Season with salt and pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. Pour over the prepared moussaka base. Then cover with a generous grating of Parmesan.
Bake for about 45 minutes until nicely browned in a 180C/160 Fan/Gas 4 oven.
I like to follow the Greek tradition of never serving hot dishes like moussaka piping hot. They’re always served lukewarm (which is actually healthier for the stomach and digestion). I think it also tastes better a little cooled. So I take it out of the oven about 10-15 minutes before I plan to serve it.
It turned out to be a gloriously hot day. We sat in the garden with wine and appetisers first and took everything very leisurely. I’d made some labneh and bought hummus and olives, and a baguette and olive fougasse from Paul bakery.
The labneh always looks so great when you take it out of the muslin and I drizzled over some extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled over some za’atar. It’s so easy to make but a lovely ‘cream cheese’.
Then I carried the two moussakas to the table. Nicola decided to eat vegetarian too. It looked so good that the meat eaters all wanted a taste.
And it was excellent. My vegetarian diners loved it but I also thought it was a lovely alternative to the traditional meat version and the puy lentil substitution had worked brilliantly. I’m sure I’ll be doing this again!