What in the world does a groundhog know about the weather, anyway? It fascinates me to realize how many people lay their meteorological hopes on a fat, furry rodent from western Pennsylvania—and I say this facetiously, fully aware that folks in the western part of my own North Carolina do the same every fall with woolly worms.
Do I care what the Punxsutawney rascal saw this morning, when he emerged from his hole? Not really, given that his predictions for early spring vs. six more weeks of winter only hold about 39% accuracy. My local weather peeps get it right far more often than that. Still, it doesn’t surprise me to know that Punxsutawney Phil has his own Instagram account with nearly 14k followers. I believe this is ultimately because people are bored half to death after being cooped up inside with cold, gray, dreary weather, and they are just looking for something to amuse themselves. You can count me among them in that regard (and we haven’t even had snow this year).
It’s why I’ve been dreaming of this salad, and I finally made it last night in my own attempt to shake off the midwinter blues and blahs. My original intent was to make it a few weeks ago, and I had purchased all the ingredients to make it happen, but then we got Covid in our house—as if January, on its own, wasn’t miserable enough—and all bets (and burners) were off. Luckily, most of my ingredients for this vibrant, flavorful salad are sturdy; the sweet potatoes, cabbage, parsnips and onions kept well, and the only thing I had to buy new was the kale. Beyond that, the salad has so many things I love—tender lentils, cooked beets (I used store bought), feta, toasted pecans and a spectacular smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette that appeared to me in a dream not long ago.
The dressing begins with a generous shake of dried minced onions, which you’ll rehydrate with some just-boiled water. Add Dijon, rice vinegar, salt and pepper, sriracha and smoked maple syrup (I love this stuff from Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind, and you’ll appreciate what it does for an old fashioned cocktail, too). Whisk in some extra virgin olive oil and set it aside until salad time. This vinaigrette brings such a huge flavor punch, I know I’ll be making it again soon, and probably roasting vegetables in it at some point before spring finally arrives in, you know, six weeks or whatever.
Is the salad easy to make? Yes, and if you want to swap in different root vegetables, go for it. If you aren’t loving the lentils, I think canned or fresh-cooked cannellini beans would be a great swap-in, or even a hard-boiled egg for a bit of protein. For an entirely plant-based salad, skip the feta and add some cubes of tofu (marinated in the vinaigrette, of course).
I can’t say for sure how long it takes to make this gorgeous plate, because I worked on bits and pieces of it while multi-tasking my day job and scrolling punxseyphil’s Instagram feed. I can assure that none of it is difficult. Make the dressing first so the flavors have time to mingle. The kale needs to be cleaned, dried and massaged with olive oil and kosher salt. I like a nice, peppery olive oil for this, and I absolutely love how tender the kale emerges after its spa treatment. What’s leftover will be great in another salad or tossed into an omelet or on top of a pizza.
The sweet potatoes and parsnips are peeled (or scrubbed), cut into chunks, tossed with onions and oil, and then roasted at 400° F for about 40 minutes—toss ‘em once or twice midway so they roast evenly.
And I cooked my lentils from dried, which I know can be a challenge so here’s my advice: ditch the directions on the bag—they always turn to mush. Use a 3:1 ratio of water to lentils, but cook them over half the heat for two to three times longer than recommended in the directions. Add a bay leaf. It takes some time, yes, but for your patience you’ll be rewarded with perfectly tender, intact lentils. They are loaded with protein and I love the flavor of these little guys.
The only thing left is assembling the salad, and that’s the easiest part. You don’t have to be all artistic about it, but I find it satisfying to compose a plate that looks as terrific as it tastes. Kale goes on the bottom of course, topped with some of the shredded red cabbage. Then add a section of lentils, a pile of the warm, roasted root vegetables and a little row of beet slices. Run a winding trail of cubed feta down through the middle, let the toasted pecans fall where they may, and drizzle the dressing all over it, especially onto the feta and lentils.
Midwinter Salad with Smoked Maple-Sriracha Vinaigrette
This salad is nutritious, colorful and bursting with flavor. Guaranteed to help you shake off the midwinter blahs!
1 large bunch fresh, organic kale
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for massaging kale)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup thinly sliced red cabbage
1 small sweet onion, chopped
2 medium sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
2 medium parsnips, cut into large chunks
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (for roasting root vegetables)
2 cups cooked green lentils
4 small, cooked beets, sliced
2/3 cup cubed feta (preferably brine-packed)
1/2 cup toasted pecans, broken into pieces
Smoked maple-sriracha vinaigrette (recipe below)
Prep kale by rinsing under cold running water. Strip leaves and discard tough stems. Roll kale leaves up in a clean dish towel to blot dry, then tear into bite-sized pieces and add to a large bowl. Drizzle kale leaves with olive oil and sprinkle with a pinch of kosher salt. Massage with your hands until kale is wilted, and then cover the bowl and refrigerate a couple of hours.
Preheat oven to 400 F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil directly onto the parchment, add cut up sweet potatoes, parsnips and onions. Drizzle on remaining olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables around to coat them with the oil. Roast for 40 minutes, until tender with roasted edges. Toss vegetables once or twice midway through roasting.
Plate the salad, beginning with chilled massage kale for the base, then scatter the shreds of red cabbage. Arrange the remaining elements of the salad in piles around the salad; a pile of lentils, a large pile of roasted root vegetables, a fan of sliced beets and a winding line of feta cubes. Sprinkle the toasted pecans randomly over the salad. Drizzle on the vinaigrette and serve.
The dressing is really the star of this salad, with its smoked maple sweetness and spicy sriracha. Look for the smoked maple syrup online from a company called “Sugar Bob’s Finest Kind,” or substitute regular maple syrup for a similar flavor. Use the unseasoned version of rice vinegar, which is not embellished with additional salt.
Combine the dried onion and hot water in a glass measuring cup, and let rest until onions are softened (they will not absorb all the water, but do not drain it).
Add sriracha, syrup, mustard, vinegar, thyme, salt and pepper to the measuring cup and whisk to combine. Drizzle olive oil into the cup, whisking constantly to emulsify the mixture. Dressing will improve after it rests awhile; give it a good whisking right before serving.
For me, the scariest thing about learning to cook plant-based food was accepting that it’s more than ingredient swaps, it’s a new process. Learning vegan cooking forced me out of my comfort zone of using what I call “crutch” foods—the easy things we were all taught to reach for—like cheese, eggs, cream and chicken broth. The only way to overcome this hurdle of making foods in new ways is to practice, and if you have vegetarians or vegans coming for Thanksgiving, the time to practice is now. There are plenty of plant-based convenience foods out there today, but they aren’t always an even swap and it’s important to also know how to cook real, whole foods without needing those processed substitutes.
A couple of years ago, when Comfort du Jour was new, I went over the top with a Savory Sausage Mac & Cheese (baked in a pumpkin). It was fun to serve and tasted as good as you’d imagine. This year, I decided to do something visually similar but with all plant-based ingredients, and this is that dish.
Unlike my earlier creation, which was stuffed with rich, decadent cheese, heavy carbs and calorie-laden pork sausage, today’s recipe is entirely plant-based. It also happens to be free of gluten and nuts, so it’s suitable for people with those dietary restrictions, too. I start thinking about dishes like this around mid-October, because my husband’s daughter is a committed vegan, and as I see it, we can dread cooking for loved ones with dietary restrictions (and believe me, they will feel it at the table), or we can adjust in a way that is as fun as it is nutritious.
This effort was also a reminder that a meal doesn’t have to be heavy to be satisfying; after we finished our pretty pumpkin supper, both my bacon cheeseburger-loving husband and I acknowledged that we were “stuffed” (in a good way). We didn’t miss what wasn’t in it, and no wonder, because what was in it was hearty and full of texture.
There are three main components of this dish: roasted pumpkin (which did double duty as a serving vessel), creamy pumpkin bisque (without actual cream, to keep it vegan) and a mixture of cooked lentils and rice with sautéed mushrooms and aromatics.
If you prefer, you could swap in another sturdy winter squash, such as buttercup or acorn. If you wish to serve the stew inside the roasted squash, be sure to choose one that will sit flat on a plate. Or you could simply serve the soup in a bowl and save time by using canned pumpkin. I found it comforting to roast the pumpkin. My mini pumpkins were small—about six inches across—and I roasted them at 350° F for 45 minutes, then scraped out some of the soft pumpkin pulp when they were cool enough to handle. I was careful to keep enough pulp in the bottom of the gourd to prevent my soup from leaking, and enough along the top cut edge to keep the carved top from falling inside
The pumpkin bisque was the simplest part of this, made with the scooped-out roasted pumpkin, enough vegetable broth to blend smoothly, and a couple of other ingredients to punch up the flavor a bit. Roasted garlic adds a depth of flavor. The carrot-turmeric juice is something I bought for smoothies, and it worked great here for spice and color. And the smoked maple syrup is a fall/winter staple in my smoked maple old fashioned cocktails, and I liked it here for a slight touch of sweetness but mostly the smoke. I might have added some plant-based creamer here as well, but I never have it on hand unless I have a vegan guest coming. Honestly, the soup was great without it. If you have some almond milk, go for it!
Finally, a mixture of cooked lentils, kale, sautéed mushrooms and aromatics gave my dish all the texture and fiber it needed to satisfy our hungry bellies. I also added a portion of wild rice blend to my stew, but next time I would sub roasted Yukon potatoes for extra chunkiness. If gluten isn’t a concern, I think cooked wheat berries would also be great in this, for a little snappy texture.
This was a time-consuming project, partly because I was multi-tasking and making it up as I went along. Next time, it’ll be a breeze, especially since I’ve made a click-to-print recipe card below to guide me (yes, I make those for sharing, but I also use them myself)! Please, don’t be intimidated. Cooking is as fun as you make it. By the way, every part of this dish can be prepared in advance. Simply warm the stew and pumpkins before assembling and serving.
A word to the wise, though—if you decide to make this for a vegan guest at Thanksgiving, you might want to make enough for everyone. This is exactly the kind of dish to make the meat eaters jealous. 😉
This is a satisfying, autumn-themed dish that also happens to be vegan, gluten-free and nut-free. It would make an excellent main course for a vegan Thanksgiving.
4 mini pumpkins, tops removed and cleaned (see ingredient notes below)
1 bulb roasted garlic
About 1-1/2 cups cooked lentils (see notes)
1 cup cooked wild rice blend (substitute cooked wheat berries or cubed and roasted Yukon potatoes, if you wish)
4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided (you’ll use a little for each thing you saute)
1 medium sweet onion, chopped
8 oz. carton cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into chunks
1 rib celery, strings removed and chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (I used a red one for color)
Kosher salt and black pepper
A fat handful of kale (substitute with double the amount of spinach, if you prefer)
1/2 cup vegetable broth
1/4 cup carrot-turmeric juice (or substitute more broth)
1 Tbsp. smoked maple syrup (substitute with regular maple syrup or omit)
Roasted, shelled pumpkin seeds for garnish
Ingredient notes: The pumpkins I used were about 6-inches across and more squatty than round, primarily because I intended to use them as serving dishes. If you only find pie pumpkins, you may want to cut the tops a little deeper so it isn’t awkward to reach a spoon down into it at serving time. If you prefer to serve in bowls, any roasted pumpkin or winter squash will be fine, and you’ll need about 2-1/2 cups of pumpkin pulp. You could even use canned pumpkin puree, and one standard can should cover it.
I used dried brown lentils for this dish, and cooked them in veggie broth for extra flavor. To save time, purchase lentils already cooked, such as canned, or those sold by Trader Joe’s.
If using canned pumpkin puree, skip to Step 3. If roasting the pumpkins, pre-heat oven to 375° F, with rack in center position. Spray or brush a small amount of olive oil inside the pumpkins and sprinkle the flesh with salt and pepper. Replace the tops, capping the stems with a piece of foil to prevent burning them.
Roast pumpkins for 45 minutes, until flesh can easily be scraped with a fork. Let them rest until cool enough to handle, and then use a small spoon to gently scrape out some of the flesh, keeping about 1/2-inch intact on the bottom and sides of the pumpkins’ interiors so they hold their shape. Transfer the scooped flesh to a blender container, and set the roasted pumpkin bowls aside at room temperature.
Combine pumpkin with roasted garlic (squeezed from it’s paper shell) in the blender container. Add veggie broth, carrot juice (if using) and maple syrup. Pulse a few times to combine, then puree until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl and set it aside.
Place a skillet or wide pot over medium heat and swirl in a tablespoon or more olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add onions, celery and jalapeno. Season with salt and pepper, and saute until slightly softened. Push the vegetables to one side of the pan. Swirl in another tablespoon of oil and cook the mushrooms until they become soft and give off most of their moisture. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set it aside. Add a final tablespoon of oil to the pot and saute the chopped kale until it has wilted and softened. Adjust salt to taste. Transfer the kale to the same bowl with the other vegetables. Add lentils to the vegetable bowl and fold gently to combine.
Transfer the pureed pumpkin base to the same pot used for cooking the vegetables, and place it over medium-low heat. Gently stir in about half of the lentil-vegetable mixture, then add more until the stew seems balanced to you. Add more vegetable broth if you wish, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
If the pumpkin bowls have cooled completely, slide them into a warm oven on a cookie sheet for about 15 minutes. Ladle the pumpkin-lentil stew into the bowls, sprinkle with roasted pepitas and serve.
Thanksgiving is the favored holiday at our house. My husband, Les, and I both love preparing the traditional meal and we made an agreement early in our relationship to alternate responsibility for the turkey. We love having friends and family at the table and, more often than not, the friends outnumber the family members by at least two-to-one. I have no children, and Les’s two adult kids can’t always make it. His son, Alex, lives and works in Europe, and has only been here for one holiday season since I’ve known him. His daughter, Sydney, lives two hours away in the mountains of North Carolina, but she also sometimes has her own plans with her mother’s family or her friends. When she is able to join us, though, I have more than a few adjustments to make to the menu because Syd is vegan.
If the idea of having a vegan at the holiday table scares you, then I hope this recipe brings some relief. It most certainly will bring some big Thanksgiving flavor, and everyone at our table—vegan or otherwise—has asked for seconds. One of my friends, a regular guest at our Thanksgiving table, has been begging me for almost two years to share this recipe, so she is probably screaming right now to finally see it on my blog (you’re welcome, Linda). 😉
You might wonder, “why not just share it with your friend after the first request instead of making her wait?” Linda (who is not a vegan) has been asking the same, and the reason is simple—I didn’t actually have a recipe for it. As I have said many times about my way of cooking, I develop recipes by instinct (otherwise known as flying by the seat of my pants), and it has only been since I began blogging that I have bothered to write down how much of what goes into most of my dishes. The first time I made this lentil mushroom wellington, I couldn’t even quite remember all the ingredients so there was no possibility of describing it to someone else. But just after Christmas last year, I made the dish again when Syd came for a post-holiday visit—and on that occasion, I kept my notes—but I didn’t post it on the blog right away because the holidays were over at that point and I doubted that anyone would want to make a fuss over such a showstopper without a special occasion. It isn’t exactly a quick weeknight recipe.
In the spirit of full disclosure, this dish does take time and effort, though none of it is difficult. If you wish to make it for Thanksgiving, perhaps for a vegan guest at your table, the good news is that almost all of it can be done in advance. You will find most of the ingredients familiar—cooked lentils, rice blend, cremini mushrooms, kale, sweet potatoes and (vegan) puff pastry—and I’ll describe in more detail how I put the whole thing together and even gave it a faux “egg wash” before baking, to give it a golden crust while keeping it plant-based.
Now, with the holidays upon us, the timing is right and I have a written-down recipe to share. So for Linda, and anyone else who wants to enjoy a pretty, entirely plant-based meal that still captures the essence of Thanksgiving, here is my recipe for the lentil mushroom wellington. Enjoy!
1 cup uncooked lentils, rinsed and picked over* (see notes)
3/4 cup uncooked brown rice or rice blend
32 oz. carton low-sodium vegetable broth
1 or 2 bay leaves
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size cubes
Extra virgin olive oil*
1 leek, cleaned and sliced (white and light green parts only)*
Liquid from a can of chickpeas (use low-sodium; reserve the chickpeas for another use)
1 Tbsp. milled flax seed*
1/4 cup pecan pieces, toasted
3 Tbsp. hemp hearts
A pinch (or two) of dried thyme leaves (or several sprigs of fresh thyme, if you have it)
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 sheet puff pastry (choose one with plant-based ingredients, such as Wewalka or Pepperidge Farm)
Flour to dust the countertop
Small handful (about 1/4 cup) of panko bread crumbs
For brushing, in place of egg wash:
1 Tbsp. plant milk, such as almond or soy
1 Tbsp. real maple syrup
1 Tbsp. canola or avocado oil
I use a lentil blend, which includes green, red and black beluga lentils. If you choose a single type of lentil, I would recommend using the green ones. Cook the lentils in vegetable broth rather than plain water. Why miss a chance to add flavor?
My go-to olive oil this time of year is the wild mushroom and sage-infused oil found in specialty olive oil and balsamic vinegar stores. But any olive oil is fine, or substitute canola oil or a favorite plant-based butter, if you prefer.
If using leeks, be sure to clean them properly to remove all traces of grit between layers. Drain and pat completely dry on layers of paper towel before sautéing. If preferred, substitute 1 medium sweet or yellow onion.
The umami seasoning blend is a product sold at Trader Joe’s, and its flavors include dried mushroom, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. If you can’t buy it, you can substitute with a combination of onion powder, garlic powder and a couple shakes of red pepper flakes, plus a pinch of salt. You might also want to mince up a couple of mushrooms to sauté with the kale or leeks to add earthy flavor to the lentil loaf.
Flax seeds are loaded with Omega-3 fats and very good for heart health, but you may not know that our bodies only reap that benefit when the seeds have been milled. You can buy flax seed already milled, but keep it fresh in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer. I purchase bags of whole flax seeds and use my blade-style coffee grinder to mill it a little at a time as I need it. For this recipe, it’s essential for the flax to be milled because it will be used in place of an egg as a binding agent.
I chose a combination of cremini mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms for this recipe. Use the largest ones you can find; mine were each about the size of a silver dollar. Clean the mushrooms as suggested in the slideshow before sautéing them.
There are many components to this recipe, and I believe it is helpful to break it down into manageable tasks over two days, beginning with preparation of the lentils, rice, sweet potato and vegetable mixtures (steps 1-6). On the second day, you can relax and focus on assembling and baking the dish.
Helpful tools for this recipe: food processor or small blender, rolling pin, pastry brush.
Cook lentils according to package instructions, using low-sodium vegetable broth in place of some or all of the water. During simmer, add a bay leaf to the pot. Drain excess liquid when lentils reach desired tenderness. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Add salt to taste.
Cook rice according to package instructions, using low-sodium vegetable broth in place of some or all of the water. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Add salt to taste.
Toss the cubed sweet potatoes with enough olive oil to lightly coat all sides. Spread onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and season with salt and pepper. Roast at 400° F until they can be pierced with the tip of a paring knife and are only slightly firm to the bite. Cool completely.
Sauté leeks (or onions) and chopped celery in a tablespoon of olive oil. Season with umami seasoning (or recommended substitute) and black pepper. When vegetables are tender and have given up their moisture, transfer to a bowl and cool completely.
Swirl another teaspoon or so of oil into the skillet and sauté the chopped kale until it has softened and reduced somewhat in volume. Resist the urge to cook the kale together with the onions; it will be used as a bed for the lentil mixture, not as part of the filling.
Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Arrange the mushrooms topside down, in the skillet, and then cook until the tops are browned and tender. Turn them over and sauté the underside. The mushrooms should give off a good bit of their moisture, but not to the point of shriveling. Lay them on layered paper towels to cool, allowing excess moisture to drain from the underside.
To assemble the mixture, gather up all the prepared components from steps 1 to 6. In a small saucepan, heat the liquid drained from the chickpeas over medium low heat. Simmer until it is reduced in volume to about 1/4 cup. Transfer the liquid to a bowl and stir in the milled flax seed. Let this mixture rest for at least 20 minutes. It will thicken up into a gel-like substance.
Transfer about 1/3 cup of the cooked lentils and about 1/4 cup of the cooked rice to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add the flax mixture to the bowl and pulse a few times until the mixture has the consistency of a loose porridge.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining lentils, rice, sweet potatoes, leek-celery mixture, toasted pecans and hemp hearts. Toss them all together. Give this mixture a final taste and adjust salt to your liking. Sprinkle thyme leaves and give the pepper mill a few twists over the mixture. Add the full amount of flax binder and fold to combine this mixture well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 400° F, with oven rack slightly lower than center, so that the wellington will rest squarely in the center of the heat.
Thaw puff pastry (if using frozen) according to package instructions. *Note: when working with puff pastry, do your best to work quickly to keep the pastry from getting warm.Sprinkle flour onto the counter and use a rolling pin to smooth out wrinkles and slightly enlarge the rectangle.
Spread panko crumbs over the center of the puff pastry, then layer the cooked kale on top of it. This will be a bed for the lentil mixture, and the crumbs will help absorb excess moisture so the puff pastry doesn’t become soggy on the bottom.
Scoop about half of the lentil mixture onto the kale, shaping it into an oblong mound like a meatloaf. Arrange the mushrooms in a tight line down the center, pressing them slightly into the lentil mixture. Shape the remaining lentil mixture over the mushrooms.
Use a paring knife to trim off the square corners of the puff pastry, leaving them rounded to match the shape of the lentil loaf. Use a cookie cutter on the scrap corners to make embellishments for the top of the wellington. Score the long sides of the puff pastry into strips, about 1 ½ inches apart. These will fold over the top of the lentil loaf, kind of like shoelaces over a sneaker. Turn up both ends of puff pastry to enclose the ends of the lentil loaf, then carefully fold the strips in alternating order across the top. Tuck in any loose edges.
Transfer the wellington to a parchment-lined, heavy cookie sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together plant milk, maple syrup and oil. Brush this mixture evenly over all exposed puff pastry, including down the sides. This will produce a beautiful golden color on the baked wellington.
Bake for 45-50 minutes, rotating pan once after 25 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes before transferring to a serving platter. Cut into thick slices and serve on individual plates with vegan mushroom gravy and tangy lemon-pomegranate Brussels sprouts. And don’t worry, I’ll have those recipes for you later this week.
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.
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!
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)
1/4 cup dried potato flakes* (if needed for thickening)
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.
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:
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.
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. 😊