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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