Garden Veggie Spiral Quiche

About once a week, my husband, Les, flashes me his phone to announce what has appeared on his Facebook page—“Five years ago, today!” It’s usually a throwback photo of our dog, Nilla, and I always love the ones that were taken years before I even met them. She was an adorable little fluff pup, and he has taken a ton of pictures of her through the years! The other day, though, he presented me with a picture that was instantly familiar— a pretty, fresh-from-the-oven spiral quiche made of fresh zucchini, yellow squash and eggplant from our own garden. The timing was remarkable, given that I had made plans to make the same recipe with veggies from this year’s garden, just days apart from the one I made in 2017. For your comparison, here they are, side by side:

Is it a quiche or a tart? Let’s just call it delicious.

My inspiration for this brunch-worthy dish came directly from Pinterest, but the recipe did not. It was one of those pins that appeared with an exciting image, but no title or description, and a link that led to absolutely nothing. But I took the clickbait in stride because at that point, I had all the inspiration I needed; my mind was already racing with my own ideas for creating such a pretty pie. I’d use thin slices of eggplant and squash from my own garden, layering them around and around inside a blind-baked pastry in my springform pan. I’d slip a few store-bought carrot slices in wherever I could make them fit, and then I’d pour an omelet mixture over the whole thing and bake it until the eggs were set. I was not blogging at that time, so it didn’t occur to me to write down what I had done—I just followed my instinct and used what was fresh from the garden at the time. I had one measly cherry tomato that year (the deer got the rest), and I showcased it by placing it right in the center.

As it happens, the same things are fresh from the garden at the same time this year!

This is a veggie-packed quiche! I ended up swapping the parsley for fresh basil, and I skipped the fresh onion and garlic.


This was a delicious, meatless dinner, and I dressed up our quiche servings with a generous spoonful of marinara sauce and some sprinkles of our favorite parm-romano blend cheese. It was hearty and satisfying, and just look at all those layers of vegetables.


I began with a homemade pastry dough, but there’s no reason you couldn’t use a pre-made crust; be sure it’s the kind you can roll out, rather than a crust already in a tin. Because of the spiral, this will work best in a baking pan with straight sides. I used a springform pan, but a regular 9-inch cake pan with straight sides will work fine as well.


At this point, I made a mistake and you have probably already spotted it. Trimming off the excess dough, even with the top of the springform pan, seemed like the logical thing to do. But I didn’t take into account that the crust would shrink during blind baking, and the pan did not have any slope to keep it in position. The better choice would be to keep a bit of dough hanging just over the edge of the pan. Or, as I suspect was my method in 2017, use a double layer of foil to hold the pastry in place during baking. So, my advice here is, “do as I say, not as I do.” 😊

Follow whatever blind-baking method feels right to you, and check on it during baking. I docked a few holes in the pastry (the bottom and the sides), laid a parchment round into the pan and filled a shallow layer of dried beans to keep it from bubbling. One of these days, I will buy some pie weights! As you can see, my trimming method backfired, and the dough slid down the sides a bit. Live and learn—let’s call it “rustic,” shall we?


Allow the crust to cool completely while you prep the veggies. Trim and slice the zucchini, squash, eggplant and carrots into 1/4” thin planks. This was a task for the mandolin, which is serious business, so I didn’t attempt to take pictures of that process. Use a knife if you must and aim to keep the planks as uniformly thin as possible. The carrots were cut into thinner, 1/8″ slices. Sprinkle all the veggies with salt and pepper and arrange your ingredients for easy assembly. Combine beaten eggs with ricotta and whisk evenly. Shred the cheese and chop the basil into strips.


When the pastry is cooled, layer the zucchini and eggplant slices around the pan, overlapping them slightly to eliminate gaps. Don’t worry about keeping the slices even—it’s natural for some of them to sit higher in the pan—and expect that you may have a few veggie planks left over. Wiggle in the carrot slices wherever they fit, and then sprinkle the shredded cheese and sliced basil over the tart.


Pour the egg-ricotta mixture slowly over the veggie swirl, taking care to let it seep evenly as much as possible. This was a bit tricky with mine, given that my pastry had collapsed in several places, but it worked out OK. In a nod to my 2017 tart, I also placed a cherry tomato in the center before I slid it into the oven. About an hour later, the eggs were set and the veggies were tender, but there was a fair amount of excess moisture pooled on top in spots.

I used a paper towel to blot away the excess moisture, and tucked it back into the oven for another minute or two.

The moisture was not disastrous, and it didn’t make the crust soggy, but next time, I’ll salt the vegetables longer to draw out moisture, the same as I do with eggplant for moussaka or eggplant parm, and my instructions reflect this suggestion, too. More lessons learned. 😊


Garden Veggie Spiral Quiche

  • Servings: 8 wedges
  • Difficulty: intermediate
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It’s fun to make, and uses up some of the fresh veggies coming out of the garden! This was delicious for Meatless Monday, or make it the star of the show at a summer brunch.

Ingredients

  • 1 rollout pie pastry (store-bought or homemade; my recipe is below)
  • 1 large or 2 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise into 1/4″ planks
  • 2 medium Japanese variety eggplant, sliced lengthwise into 1/4″ planks
  • 1 medium yellow or zephyr squash, sliced lengthwise into 1/4″ planks
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled and sliced lengthwise into 1/8″ planks
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup ricotta
  • 1 tsp. dried minced onions
  • 1/2 cup shredded gruyere or cheddar cheese
  • Small handful of fresh basil leaves (or substitute Italian parsley)
  • Marinara sauce and grated parmesan, for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare and blind-bake the pastry in a 9″ springform or other straight-sided cake pan. Allow it to cool to room temperature.
  2. Spread out the veggie planks and season them generously with salt and pepper. Allow them to rest for about an hour, to draw out some of the moisture. Blot dry with paper towels. Select a smaller, “bendy” slice or two for the center of your quiche.
  3. Whisk together the eggs and ricotta until evenly blended. Stir in dried minced onions.
  4. Arrange zucchini, eggplant and yellow squash planks in the cooled pastry crust, overlapping slightly and alternating veggies for visual interest. Wrap the reserved slices tightly around your index finger and place it in the center (it will unwind to fill up the space). Tuck carrot slices in wherever you can make them fit.
  5. Scatter shredded gruyere all over the veggie spiral. Slice or tear the basil leaves and scatter those over the quiche as well.
  6. Carefully pour the egg mixture over the tart, taking care to let it seep down between the veggie planks. The mixture may or may not come all the way to the top.
  7. Bake the quiche at 350° F for about an hour, until eggs are fully set and vegetables are softened. Let it cool at least ten minutes before slicing and serving.

Use your favorite pie pastry recipe, or take a shortcut with a store-bought, roll-out crust. Below is the recipe I used for mine.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or white whole wheat)
  • 1/2 stick unsalted butter, cold, cut into small cubes
  • 1/8 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup very cold water

Directions

  1. Combine the two flours and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse one or two times to evenly mix.
  2. Scatter the butter cubes all over the flour. Pulse about five times until the butter bits are smaller and coated in flour.
  3. Slowly pour the cold water into the chute of the processor. Run continuously as you add the water, and mix just until the dough forms a ball. Turn the dough out onto a piece of plastic film; wrap it up tightly and refrigerate at least one hour or up to overnight.
  4. To blind-bake the pastry, preheat oven to 350° F. Roll the dough out on a lightly floured countertop and drape it into the springform pan; trim off excess, but allow the dough to catch the edge a bit. Use a fork to prick a few holes into the dough; this helps reduce puffing while baking. Lay a piece of parchment over the bottom of the crust and fill with ceramic beads (or dried beans work well). Alternative, gently lay a doubled sheet of foil directly over the raw crust and up the sides. Bake for about 20 minutes, just until pastry is set but not golden. Allow it to cool before filling.



Green Curry Shrimp

It has been an interesting week at our house, between the saga of our bathroom remodel, which included some high drama that nearly wrecked me (more on that another day), and an unfortunate, middle-of-the-night accident that occurred in the rear corner of our raised bed garden. It’s been going gangbusters, thanks to the vigilant security provided by this little fella:

The Yard Defender!!!

The “Yard Defender” has restored my hope for a vegetable garden, after several (literally) fruitless years of battle against the herd of deer that resides in the woods behind our cul-de-sac. We’ve tried all the home remedy stuff—Irish Spring soap, garlic hung on strings that spanned the tomato cages, human hair, commercial potions with a nasty rotten egg odor, ALL of it—and last year, well, I didn’t even bother. But with grocery prices soaring, I wanted to try again and so I splurged on this motion sensor device, advertised with the slogan, “don’t hurt ‘em, just squirt ‘em!”

The thing has peripheral vision to spot deer (or other critters, or unsuspecting neighbors) when they approach the garden, and launches a hearty spray of water to chase them off. My garden looks better than ever! Yesterday morning, though, our neighbor texted to tell me that “something had happened” to one of my zucchini plants, and when I went out to investigate, I discovered what appears to be a hit-and-run.

YIKES!

First of all, this trellis is heavy duty, so this was a serious accident. I was trying to train my zucchini to grow upward on both sides of it, to make more space in the garden and encourage more fruit. It was looking so healthy and I’ve just begun to see blossoms forming. My assumption is that a good-sized deer was already standing in the garden when the sensor detected its movement, and the precious thing got so spooked by the abrupt noise and spray, it panicked and fell onto the trellis. I have since moved the Yard Defender to the rear of the garden, where the tomatoes grow (it’s what they are after anyway), and hopefully we can avoid another dangerous incident. For sure, at least one of my zucchini plants is doomed (it was crushed, along with the trellis), but I hope that the other three endure so I can join the chorus of those who are sick to death of zucchini recipes, come August. Until then, I will continue to harvest what is growing out of control on the inside of my house, in the Aerogarden.

Here we go again, with the Thai basil!


I’ve been scrambling to come up with interesting ways to work this herb into “the rotation,” which is an inside joke for me and my husband, who swears we have not eaten the same thing twice since 2016. This is his fault, I say, for marrying a woman who loves to experiment in the kitchen. But using what is local and plentiful is part of what I do, and it doesn’t get more “local” than the dining room. I have in mind to substitute it for mint in a Mojito this weekend, and I’ll let you know how that goes. For now, let’s talk about what went into this bowlful of goodness.


Some of the vegetables in this recipe were the same as in the Thai Basil Chicken I shared last week, but there were plenty of swaps that make this dish different. I used carrots and red bell pepper again, swapped in scallions for regular onions, and cut up the first fruit of my 2022 garden, a wonky eggplant!


Shrimp was my protein and I shifted the sauce to a green curry-coconut vibe. Green curry is a vibrant blend of warm spices mixed with lemongrass, kaffir lime, green Thai chile and galangal, a rhizome that looks like ginger but tastes more herbal. It would be quite complex to make green curry from scratch, but a store-bought paste makes this recipe very simple. The aroma of the paste is pleasantly intoxicating, especially when it first hits the oil in your pan. Coconut milk is a natural companion for the flavor of any curry, and for this recipe, I used a “light” version to reduce the overall fat, but a full-fat coconut milk is fine and would lend more of the coconut flavor.


My first taste of green curry (circa 2005) was a pleasant surprise, and I was introduced to it by an unexpected culinary expert—my then-quite-young stepdaughter. She became a foodie at an early age, in part by my influence, but also that of her mother, who introduced her to Thai food when she was still in elementary school. Yes, when other kiddos were clamoring for fried chicken fingers at chain restaurants, our global flavor-savvy girl was scouting out the nearest sushi joint or Indian restaurant. When I had mentioned to her on a family dinner out in a Thai restaurant that I didn’t care for curry, she asked, incredulously, “not even green curry?” She offered me a taste of her favorite green curry chicken, and I was hooked. I’ve made it at home a few times in recent years, but this was my first time with shrimp. Delicious!


There is a bit of heat in my rendition of this dish, not only from the green curry paste, which leans spicier than red and yellow curries, but amped up by a few shakes of another fun ingredient in my pantry—Asian Reds hot chile blend, available online from the Flatiron Pepper Co. website. To be clear, I don’t get paid to brag about them, but I probably should, given that we own a bottle of darn-near every variety they make. What sets this company apart from others is that it offers region-specific blends of peppers that are otherwise hard to find. The Asian Reds includes Thai chile and ghost pepper, both of which are damn hot. I heartily recommend it for adding heat to any Asian-inspired dish, but a quick shake of the red pepper flakes you probably already have will work in a pinch for this recipe, or you could mince up half of a red jalapeno into the veggie mix for similar heat effect.

You won’t find these varieties of peppers just anywhere. Use it sparingly because it is HOT.

My advice for making this dish is the same as most every Asian-inspired recipe, and that is to get all your ingredients lined up and ready before you begin because things move quickly once the oil hits the pan. That means chop up your vegetables, clean and de-vein your shrimp and get your rice cooking (you’ll want that, for soaking up every last drop of the flavorful green curry sauce). Place a heavy bottomed pan over medium-high heat and add a couple of tablespoons of high-heat oil, such as canola, peanut or coconut. Give a quick stir-fry to the carrots and peppers first, because they take longer to cook. Then, add the scallions and garlic and toss long enough for the initial steam to dissipate. Move the vegetables to the outer edges the pan, drop another tablespoon of oil to the center and plop the green curry paste onto it. Prepare to be entranced by the aroma!


When the oil sizzles around the green curry paste, use a utensil to break it up and toss it with all the vegetable ingredients, so that everything is covered in a light film of the curry paste. The eggplant should go in last, given its tendency to instantly absorb oil. Toss everything just enough to coat the pieces, then add the entire can of coconut milk and stir to blend. Sprinkle in hot pepper flakes (if you want the extra heat), reduce the heat to low and cover the pan to simmer for 3 minutes. This gives the vegetables time to soften, and allows the green curry flavor to permeate everything.


Add the shrimp to the pan and stir to submerge them beneath the simmering liquid. Depending on the size of your shrimp, it should only take 3 to 5 minutes for them to lose their pink color, so watch them closely. Add a handful of Thai basil and stir to wilt it into the dish. Serve immediately with a portion of jasmine rice.

Garnish with a pretty Thai basil leaf if you want to be fancy. 😉


Green Curry Shrimp

  • Servings: 2, plus leftovers for one lunch
  • Difficulty: average
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This recipe comes together quickly and with ease, thanks to a store-bought paste that captures all the important flavors of Thai green curry. Substitute chicken or tofu if you wish. If you don’t have Thai basil, you could substitute regular basil or omit it altogether.

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp. high-heat cooking oil, such as canola, peanut or coconut (you will divide this for cooking the vegetables and blooming the curry paste)
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced and halved
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and cut on a bias
  • 3 scallions, cut on bias (white and green parts)
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 medium Japanese eggplant, cut into bite sized chunks
  • 2 Tbsp. prepared green curry paste
  • 1 can light coconut milk (this is the culinary variety, not cartons for drinking)
  • a few shakes hot red pepper flakes, for extra heat
  • 1/2 pound fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • a handful of fresh Thai basil leaves (optional but delicious); substitute regular basil if desired
  • hot cooked jasmine rice, for serving (I used brown jasmine rice for extra flavor and nutrition)

Directions

  1. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of oil and stir-fry the carrots and red peppers for about two minutes to give them a head start. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add scallions and garlic and toss to coat and wilt the scallions.
  2. Move the vegetables to the outer edge of the pot. Add 1 tablespoon of oil to the center and spoon the green curry paste onto the oil. This will “bloom” all the flavors of the paste. Break it up a bit with your cooking utensil, then stir it together with the cooked vegetables. Add the eggplant and toss to coat.
  3. Pour the entire can of light coconut milk into the pot and gently stir to blend. Sprinkle on hot pepper flakes (if using) and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low and cover the pot, simmering for about three minutes, or until the mixture reaches a slight boil.
  4. Add the shrimp pieces. tossing lightly to submerge them beneath the simmering liquid. Keep a close eye on them, as they will cook in as few as 3 minutes, depending on their size and original temperature.
  5. Stir in Thai basil leaves until wilted. Serve immediately with hot cooked jasmine rice.



Ratatouille Lasagna Roll-ups

The summer season brings all the garden-fresh vegetables I love, including zucchini and eggplant, which I would definitely be growing in our little garden plot if it weren’t for the deer. Year after year, I have tried in vain to grow my own veggies, and the increase of deer activity on our property and that of our neighbors has been almost humorous. Almost.

Gardening, for me, started as a fun, nature-loving adventure but has rapidly declined into a frustrating drama, and now we have this elevated box in our yard, where we cannot grow anything but marigolds and basil, which have proven to be the only things our local deer detest. Last year’s garden was demolished, right down to the flowers and budding fruit of the eggplants and even the jalapeno pepper plants (which I had been told deer would never eat). We have tried all the folk remedies on the internet—human hair, shavings of bar soap, peppermint oil, so-called deer repellent, and even a weird concoction I made from rotten eggs, cayenne and dish soap. That last remedy had near-catastrophic results, but I won’t embarrass my husband again with that story (you can read it here, if you’d like). This year, we didn’t even bother planting a garden, and I’m contemplating turning the raised bed into some kind of wildflower bed. I get exasperated just thinking about it.

To make up for a lack of homegrown veggies, we are regularly visiting our weekly Cobblestone farmers’ market, which features a variety of vendors offering fresh produce as well as pastured meat, eggs, organic mushrooms, jams and preserves, and even handmade alpaca wool products. It’s a fun way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning, and this past weekend, we came home with everything I needed for a new batch of ratatouille. Ah, my favorite veggie-centered summer meal!

Classic ratatouille ingredients = zucchini, eggplant, pepper, onions (leeks this time), tomato and herbs de Provence!

Me being me, though, I cannot simply chop up these ingredients and make a “traditional” ratatouille, which would be a rustic casserole-meets-stew kind of thing. I have to twist it up! My culinary muse inspired me this time to combine the French classic dish with another favorite comfort food—lasagna. I figured that I could infuse my herbs de Provence seasoning into a ricotta mixture with lemon zest and some grated cheese and that it would be the “glue” to hold the other ingredients together inside a rolled-up lasagna noodle. The eggplant and zucchini would be sliced and roasted, and the red pepper would be worked into the sauce. This is how my mind sees a pile of ingredients, and the end result was exactly as I had imagined, both visually and in perfect summer flavor. Delicious!

Inside, you can see and taste all the flavors of a summer ratatouille!

This reimagined one-dish meal took mostly time to put together; it was not at all difficult. I cannot say definitively how much time is needed because I was cooking all day, in between work emails and other home tasks. I will say that it was mostly passive time; I was either waiting for things to lose moisture or to finish roasting or to boil or bake. The rest was just slicing, chopping and stirring, and there’s no particular order that must be followed. You could even make everything a day ahead and just assemble and bake it the next day.


The entire ratatouille-meets-lasagna project weaved itself nicely into my busy day, and because each ingredient received its own treatment, the simplest way I can describe it is to share the process of each component. I’ll share a PDF version of the recipe at the end if you want to try it, but I’ll let the pictures tell the story in today’s post. Here we go! 🙂


The Ricotta Filling


The Eggplant


The Zucchini


The Red Bell Pepper


The Onions


The Tomatoes

The only classic ratatouille ingredient remaining is tomato, and though my ingredients photo displays a big, lovely heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, I thought better of it when I began cooking my ratatouille. The heirloom tomato would have been full of seeds and too juicy for this dish, so I cast it aside and used half a can of San Marzano tomatoes instead to produce a fusion sauce, together with the roasted red pepper and a healthy dose of garlic. This sauce was similar to the roasted red pepper sauce that my husband, Les, discovered last year, but it leans more toward tomato than pepper. It was exactly what this recipe needed.


Putting it all together

Assembling and finishing my ratatouille lasagna roll-ups was a cinch! I par-cooked the lasagna noodles until they were soft and flexible, spread the ricotta mixture onto them, layered the eggplant, zucchini and leeks and rolled them up!


First ratatouille of the summer! 🙂

Oh, and that plump, juicy heirloom tomato I mentioned found its way instead to a BLT, which we enjoyed as a separate meal on freshly baked sourdough bread with local greens and some pastured pork bacon (also from the farmers’ market).

Who needs a garden, anyway? 😉



Sausage and Eggplant Leftovers Pizza

“I’ve got leftovers on my leftovers!”

This is what I shouted as I was assembling this patchwork pizza, which had all the classic Italian flavors of eggplant parmesan, lasagna and spicy pepperonata. Yep, all that on a crust. But make no mistake, I did not plan it this way.

The end-of-weekend fridge clearing ritual at our house took an interesting turn last night when my husband, Les, who will never, ever turn his nose up to anything pizza or anything eggplant, suggested that we take the remnants of a sausage and eggplant noodle casserole (which was already a leftover creation), and chop it all up to top some fresh N.Y. pizza dough. After all, he reasoned, the flavors were right for pizza and we knew from experience that cooked macaroni on a thin crust pie was next level comfort food—we had tried it last summer with some leftover mac and cheese and it was awesome—plus, we had just enough scraps of pepperoni and shredded mozzarella to hold it all together. Why not?

I wish I had taken just one photo of the “original” leftover creation, which was sort of a poor man’s lasagna, made of layered cooked elbow macaroni, two leftover grilled spicy Italian sausage links, the sautéed peppers and onions that had topped the sausages on sandwiches earlier in the week, a can of diced tomatoes, ricotta mixed with Italian herbs and our favorite parm-romano blend, plus an eggplant that I had sliced, sweated and quick-roasted, and every last random slice of provolone and thin-sliced mozzarella that had been taking up space in the deli drawer. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother cataloguing the details of the casserole at the time because I hadn’t planned to share it here on Comfort du Jour, and I also hadn’t really planned on sharing this pizza. I have no specific measurements of ingredients or step-by-step photos to share. Sometimes I need to just focus on feeding us, you know? But the end result—this I must share, because it underscores the fact that one should never underestimate the power of leftovers. It’s one of the essential kitchen rules I learned from my grandmother.

Les was proud of the success of this leftover creation, and it just happened to have all his favorite flavors. 🙂

Not every idea in the kitchen has to be new and interesting, nor should everything be same old, same old. But sometimes, if you play it just right, the two collide and become something unexpectedly delicious, as we learned with this pizza. We had three slices leftover, naturally, and they will warm up nicely for lunch as leftovers of the leftover leftovers.

What crazy good thing have you made with leftovers recently? Drop it in the comments section so we can all be inspired!


Lentil Moussaka

Sumptuous layers of Mediterranean flavor—béchamel-topped eggplant, potatoes and ground meat seasoned with a delightfully different tomato-y sauce. Moussaka is one of my favorite Greek-themed foods. It’s not quite lasagna, not quite eggplant parmesan, but 100% the comfort food value of both, and while the one pictured is a vegetarian version, there is also a simple switch to make it vegan.

You read correctly. Vegan moussaka. All the flavor, all the richness, all the comfort, but none of the meat. And it’s way easier to make than you might imagine. I’ve learned that when it comes to “converting” a meat-centric recipe into a vegan delight, if you keep your focus on the spices and flavors, you’ll have a winner. It’s not the meat that makes moussaka special, but the other layers of flavor around it, and especially the tomato sauce. Unlike an Italian red sauce, this one gets its distinct flavor from warm spices, such as cinnamon and coriander. And if we can nail those flavors, it really doesn’t matter what goes in place of the meat—but of course, I’ll offer some suggestions to get you started.

This is my approach to making a vegan version of a classic dish. I want protein, texture and flavor—the three things the meat would otherwise contribute to the moussaka, and the rest of the recipe will remain traditional. Lentils will bring the protein, and they’re one of the earliest crops domesticated in ancient Greece, so they’re already speaking the same language as the spices and eggplant. And I love lentils! One cup of cooked lentils packs a hefty 16 grams of protein, about the same as a 3-ounce serving of cooked ground beef. They add more than 15 grams of dietary fiber, too. Nutrition-wise, this is a very smart substitute. If I didn’t have them, I’d probably be looking at garbanzo beans.

Plenty of vegetables provide the other qualities my recipe needs, but I want to avoid the ones that might compete with the eggplant and especially that scrumptious sauce. Bell peppers are great with eggplant (I can’t wait to make ratatouille this summer), but the flavor feels a little off for moussaka. Broccoli is too bitter. Green beans are too specific in shape. Zucchini is a little high on water content. I need something I can chop or pulse into smaller pieces in the food processor. That leaves me with cauliflower, washed kale leaves, onions and carrots. There’s good body in all of them, and they’ll hold their shape after a quick sauté.

There are a few other tricks I’ll employ to make this dish hearty and satisfying. I’ll salt and sweat the eggplant slices to make them more “meat-like,” and nutritional yeast will help bring an umami experience to the vegan bechamel topping, which would otherwise be bland and uninteresting. My husband’s adult daughter has embraced the vegan lifestyle, and she comes to town every so often for special dinners. As a result, all these ideas have become very common to me, but I don’t want to assume all of this makes sense to you, dear friends, so let me back up a little bit.

What does it mean to “salt and sweat” the eggplant?

Layering the sliced eggplant on salted paper towels will draw out the moisture from the eggplant, which improves the texture a great deal, especially when I want to grill or roast the eggplant as a replacement for meat. If you’ve ever had slimy, bitter or soggy eggplant, somebody skipped this step. Please give eggplant another chance. Properly “sweated,” eggplant will be remarkably meaty and substantial—exactly what we want in this moussaka. Take care of this step a couple hours before you’re ready to make the full recipe.

What is nutritional yeast?

Nutritional yeast is a common substitute for cheesy flavor in vegan cuisine. It’s the same species, but not the same form as the yeast you’d use to bake bread. Nutritional yeast is a yellowish flaky substance, widely available at any natural foods store or online from Bob’s Red Mill. It provides some of the salty, savory quality you would expect in a hard cheese such as parmesan. It’s tasty just sprinkled on hot popcorn. And for the vegan moussaka, it will lend a familiar “cheesiness” to the béchamel alternative.

What does “umami” mean?

When I was a kid, we learned in science class that the human taste buds recognized four main things—sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But within the past decade or so, a fifth taste, “umami” was officially invited to join the party. It’s a savory flavor that is most easily described by example. Think of what you taste when you bite into a piece of steak, or a sautéed mushroom, or a piece of sharp cheese. This savory sensation is distinctly different from the other four tastes and is often the missing link in meatless dishes. If you can successfully supply this “umami” taste, you’ll be victorious in every vegan dish.

A.K.A. “The Bomb.”

This new seasoning from Trader Joe’s is one of the best ingredients ever for meeting this goal (no, they’re not paying me to say so). It is made from ground dried porcini and other mushrooms, plus garlic, onion, thyme, salt and some red pepper spice. I fell completely in love with this stuff last year at Thanksgiving, and I sometimes use it even in non-vegan dishes.

Ready? Let’s get cooking!


Ingredients

1 medium eggplant, sliced, salted and sweated

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, with peels

1 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, rough chopped

1/4 head fresh cauliflower florets, rough chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and rough chopped

Several handfuls of washed kale leaves

Spice blend (listed below)

2 cups cooked lentils (I used a blend of red, brown and green)

28 oz. can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup dry red wine

Béchamel or vegan alternative (recipe below)


Spice Blend

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. Spanish sweet or smoked paprika

1 tsp. dried oregano

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. ground coriander

1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper


Vegan Béchamel

4 Tbsp. vegan butter*

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 1/2 cups plain, unsweetened almond milk

Kosher salt

Fresh grated nutmeg

1/4 tsp. white pepper

2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes

1/2 tsp. Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning (optional)

1/4 cup dried potato flakes* (if needed for thickening)

*Notes

Some vegan butter brands will work better than others in this recipe. For the roux that will be the base of a cream sauce, choose an oil-based option. Earth Balance brand used to be my go-to, but my new favorite is the Country Crock line of plant-based butters (they’re not paying me, either). In this recipe, I used the avocado oil version. It melts perfectly and has a pleasant, neutral flavor.

When purchasing potato flakes (or any other processed ingredient) for vegan recipes, take notice of the label to be sure they don’t have some hidden dairy ingredient. I’m partial to the “instant mashed potatoes” available at Whole Foods. There’s only one ingredient—dehydrated potatoes. I love when something is simple.


Instructions

Wash the eggplant and trim the stem end, but do not peel it. Place a double layer of paper towels on a rimmed cookie sheet and sprinkle it liberally with kosher salt. Slice the eggplant into 1/2″ thick rounds and arrange them in a single layer on the salted towel. Sprinkle salt over the tops of the slices. Place another double layer of paper towels over the top of the eggplant slices, then place another cookie sheet, weighted by a cast iron pan, over the top. Allow this to rest on the counter a couple of hours.

When you are ready to proceed, pre-heat the oven to 350° F. Wipe the excess salt from the eggplant slices. You might be shocked at the amount of moisture the salting step has removed. Brush (or spray) both sides of the slices with extra virgin olive oil and arrange them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. Grind some black pepper over them, and roast for about 30 minutes, turning once about halfway through. They will shrink considerably but that’s OK.

Scrub the potatoes clean and poke them all over with a fork. Microwave them for about 4 minutes, or until they are just tender enough to slice (not as tender as you’d serve). Cool, then slice them into rounds about 1/2” thick. This is a little thicker than I would slice them for a traditional meat-centric moussaka, but in this vegan version, I want them to provide a little extra body for the foundation of the casserole.

In a food processor with the chopping blade, add the rough chopped cauliflower and carrots. Pulse about 5 times, until vegetables have a coarse, uniform texture.

Place a large non-stick skillet over medium heat and add about 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the chopped onions and the processed carrot-cauliflower pieces. Stir and sauté while you process the kale.

Fill the food processor bowl with kale leaves, and pulse about 5 times until the kale is reduced to about half the original volume. The appearance of chopped parsley is just about right.

Add the chopped kale to the skillet and sauté the whole mixture about 3 minutes. Add the garlic, season with kosher salt, then add the spice mixture and cook another 2 minutes. Add the cooked lentils and the entire can of crushed tomatoes. Get every bit of flavor by “rinsing” the can with the red wine. Simmer on medium low heat about 10 minutes until liquid is reduced.

Assembling the Moussaka

Spray an oblong (9 x 13) glass baking dish with olive oil spray. Arrange the cooked potato slices in a single layer, placing them as close to each other as possible to  provide a good base for the casserole. Add about half of the sauce mixture and spread it evenly over the potatoes. Arrange the eggplant slices in a single layer, then top with the remaining sauce mixture. If you’re working ahead, you can pop this in the fridge for a day or two until you’re ready to add the vegan béchamel and bake the casserole. If you prefer a classic dairy béchamel, follow this recipe but with dairy butter and milk, and skip the nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. We usually toss on a handful of fresh parm-romano blend also. After baking, it should come out pretty much like this one:

Lentil moussaka with dairy bechamel

To make a vegan béchamel, begin by melting the vegan butter and cooking the flour in it until it becomes lightly golden and bubbly. Add the almond milk, then cook and whisk over medium heat several minutes until mixture begins to thicken. Add salt, fresh nutmeg, white pepper, nutritional yeast and umami seasoning. Spread over the layered casserole and bake at 350° F for about 40 minutes, or until you can see the inside sauce bubbling around the edges of the béchamel. Give it a couple minutes to cool and firm up, then dive right in.

My brand of almond milk was on the thin side and didn’t thicken as well as I’d expected. I resolved the viscosity issue by whisking in about 1/4 cup of dehydrated potato flakes. I’m a bread-making nerd, so I have such things on hand. Without it, I probably would have made flour or corn starch slurry to whisk into the sauce instead. But the potato trick worked like a charm, and it made kind of an “echo” of potato-ness from the bottom of the casserole. If your béchamel seems to be the correct consistency, this step would not be necessary, but still delicious.

This dish has become a “go-to” recipe for our Meatless Monday rotation, and my husband, Les, and I generally don’t mind having some dairy ingredients in the béchamel topping. Frankly, we prefer it because we love his DIY parm-romano cheese blend lavishly sprinkled on top. But we were delightfully surprised on Memorial Day weekend to hear from his adult daughter—Syd was planning to drive two hours into town for a visit and wondered if she could bring her boyfriend to meet us around midday the next day. Of course! Let’s plan on lunch while we’re at it. Normally, a bit more notice gives me greater confidence in preparing a completely plant-based meal, but as fate would have it, this lentil moussaka was already in my plan for the weekend. Coincidence? We don’t believe in coincidences in our house.

By the time Syd phoned us, I had already prepped the moussaka up to the point of adding the béchamel, so we made a last-minute decision to divide the 9 x 13 casserole into two smaller 8 x 8 casseroles—one with dairy béchamel and the other with a vegan alternative.

Dairy on the left, vegan on the right.

Side by side, you can see the slight difference between our two versions. Underneath the topping, they were exactly the same. The spices offered a nice complexity, and the texture of the lentils, cauliflower and kale made it feel substantial—all the things I described when we first talked about Meatless Monday.

Les is a great dad (and husband), and he gets pretty excited any time either of his kids pay a visit, and we were extra lucky that day because his adult son also happened to join us for our moussaka dinner. Alex came home unexpectedly from Hungary during the early weeks of the pandemic and having both of his kids with us at once was a real treat. Honestly, it was the first sit-down meal we’ve hosted for guests since New Year’s Eve—five whole months ago. For a couple of hours, life felt almost normal.

So excuse me forgetting, but I got a little sidetracked and missed taking pictures of the casserole just out of the oven or even at the table. One of the new things I’m learning during this pandemic is to pay closer attention to the people you love while they’re in front of you. If that means I miss a photo of the plated food—well, no big deal. I’ll update this post when I make it again one day. 😊

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