Since uni officially let out for the summer, I couldn’t remember the last time I properly set aside a whole morning to experiment in the kitchen. The bulk of my travels are over now, but this new internship is keeping me busy and my weekends have been spent in a daze of seeing two of my favourite musicians play back-to-back, photographing friends’ weddings, tackling a few more design projects on the side, and avoiding the start of my dissertation research.
Something about setting an early alarm to tackle a labour-intensive lunch is rewarding beyond the edible end product. For many mothers in the Arabic, Levantine, and Greek world, the definition of labour-intensive dish is moussaka—and I finally understand why. That being said, don’t let the extra work keep you from making this layered gem, pleaser of crowds and tastebuds alike. It’s not so difficult, but requires multiple steps and generates plenty of dirty dishes. I made the spiced lentil filling the night before, and mise en place will speed things along.
Aubergine—king of the nightshades and cornerstone of any moussaka—can be tricky to fry, but baking the slices eliminates oil-sponging issues, requires no pre-salting, and makes less of a mess. And although it’s not particularly similar to the aubergine (which is actually a berry!) in biological terms, the courgette will always be closely associated in my mind and on summer grilltops; along with other culinary tidbits like coriander/cilantro, I’ve had to turn the UK/US terminology switch for eggplant and zucchini. At the height of both their seasons, layering of these two faux-cousins make for a great textural variation, as both are delicately flavoured but result in very different mouthfeel after cooking.
A cauliflower white-sauce concoction was a gamble, but turned out beautifully similar to a classic flour-butter-milk béchamel and so very suitable for a vegetarian moussaka. There has been a cauliflower versatility boom in the recent years, and the colour itself is practically a blank canvas begging to be adapted. Sprinkled with broil-browned pecorino and fluffed up with a beaten egg, you’ll not be able to tell the difference.
The assembly, the consumption, and the sharing of moussaka are all worth waking up early for—even during a stupidly busy summer weekend.
Cauliflower Courgette Moussaka
- 2 courgettes (zucchinis)
- 2 aubergines (eggplants)
- 1 potato
- 1 sweet potato
- olive oil
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 100ml red wine
- 150g dried lentils & split peas
- 300g tomatoes, chopped
- a handful of cauliflower florets, grated
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 t oregano
- 2 t cinnamon
- olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 T butter
- 1 small cauliflower
- 3-4 T grated pecorino, plus more for topping
- olive oil
- organic milk
- generous pinch of nutmeg
- black pepper, freshly ground
- kosher salt, to taste
- 1 egg
Preheat oven to 250ºC / 500ºF and grease two baking trays with olive oil.
Peel aubergine in a striped pattern and slice into rounds that are about 1cm thick.
Peel the potatoes and courgette and slice in similar thickness. Courgette skin can be bitter, but you can leave them on during roasting to prevent the watery flesh from falling apart and peel them off afterwards. I sliced one of mine thicker and lengthwise, which hardly retains firmness after cooking but adds a bit of textural variation.
Place the slices onto a single layer of the baking tray and brush with more olive oil, seasoning with salt and pepper. It may take a few batches and the re-greasing of trays to finish roasting all the vegetables, each batch taking about 15 minutes. The potatoes will take longer (or alternatively, you can parboil them), so pop them in while you slice the other vegetables. Keep an eye on them and flip halfway through when one side has browned sufficiently, also rotating the top/bottom racks in the oven.
Meanwhile, heat up olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Toss in diced onion and garlic until soft and fragrant. Pour in wine and allow to boil away. Add lentils, tomatoes, oregano, and cinnamon. Top up with broth/water and add a bay leaf. Coursly grate in a handful of cauliflower florets. Bring to a rolling boil before lowering to a simmer and partially covering. The lentils should be cooked after 30-40 minutes, and the sauce reduced to be thick. If not, leave uncovered until most liquid is evaporated. This can also be made the night before.
For the cauliflower “béchamel” sauce, sauté garlic in butter over low heat. Avoid browning or burning the garlic and remove after a couple minutes to set aside.
Cover cauliflower in broth or water and boil for 10 minutes or until fork-tender.
Transfer cooked florets into a blender along with grated cheese and the garlic. Drizzle with a few gluts of olive oil and puree until very smooth, adding milk as needed to achieve desired thickness. Season with salt/pepper to taste and add a pinch of nutmeg. Gradually and thoroughly whisk in the egg.
Lower the oven temperature to 200ºC / 390ºF. To assemble the moussaka, the layer the roasted potatoes on the bottom of a deep, oiled baking dish. Arrange a layer of courgette and aubergine on top, then spread a layer of half the lentil ragú. Add a layer of sweet potato, more courgette, then another spread of remaining lentils. Finish with a layer of aubergine. Top with the creamy cauliflower sauce, sprinkle with grated pecorino cheese, and bake for about 45 minutes, when top becomes golden and bubbly.
After removing from the oven, wait for the moussaka to cool and firm up so that cutting and serving becomes much easier.