One of my favorite condiments is tzatziki, the Greek yogurt-based topping that is perfect for anything you put on a pita, including gyro and souvlaki. The zesty zing of garlic and cooling notes of grated cucumber are an easy, refreshing way to pile on the flavor. But for a vegan dish, such as the falafel I made recently, tzatziki is off the table. We wanted a flavorful topping that still had a Middle Eastern vibe, and one that could play many roles, as a dipping sauce, topping or dressing.
That’s how this tahini-lemon sauce came to be, and as I whizzed up the ingredients in my food processor, it occurred to me that this sauce is basically hummus, minus the chickpeas. All the other components of hummus are in there—the tahini, which is a sticky paste made from ground toasted sesame seeds, fresh garlic, fresh lemon juice, salt, spices and good olive oil. Processing these ingredients results in a smooth, completely emulsified mixture that can be thick or thin, depending on how much water your blend into it. For my purposes this time, I kept it on the thicker side as a perfect dipping agent for my falafel, but I can easily see the benefit of thinning it to pour onto a salad or Buddha bowl.
My husband’s adult daughter has adopted the vegan lifestyle, and I am always on the lookout for easy foods to make when she visits. This tahini-lemon sauce fits the bill, and it’s so tasty that we non-vegans won’t feel like we are missing out on anything.
1/2 cup tahini paste
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Juice of 1 large lemon
A few shakes of crushed red pepper* (see notes)
2 Tbsp. fresh dill leaves
1/4 cup water (or more, for thinner sauce)
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
The crushed red pepper flakes that you see in pizza restaurants would be fine here, but if you can get your hands on Aleppo pepper, that is even more in keeping with the Mediterranean flavor profile. We used a three-pepper blend (Aleppo, Maras and Urfa) from Flatiron Pepper Company, and their rep informed me that it will be back in stock in a few months. I’ll update this post at that time to include a link, in case you’d like to check it out.
If at first you don’t succeed, wait a year and try again. Yes, I know that isn’t exactly how the adage goes, but it seems to be my M.O. when I get discouraged over failed recipes. Falafel has confounded me as much as it has enchanted me, from my first-ever taste of it at a now-closed corner diner near the campus of UNC-Greensboro to my most recent experience of it at Miznon in New York’s Chelsea Market. It was that most recent taste that inspired me to give falafel another go.
I love the texture of these crispy little gems and especially the vibrant flavor that is jam-packed into every delicious bite. Falafel is a Middle Eastern specialty, made from ground-up chickpeas and a ton of fresh herbs and spices. It is usually shaped into balls or disc shapes and fried until crispy, though I have also seen oven-baked falafel, which has a somewhat pale and less visually enticing appearance. Undoubtedly, it can be made in an air fryer—and perhaps someone reading this will chime in to share their results of that method. I have tried both fried and oven-baked falafel a few times but got increasingly frustrated with each fail, and then put off trying again for longer and longer stretches of time. How could this be so difficult, I wondered? The dish eventually moved to the top of my culinary “bucket list,” and I’m pleased to say that I finally won the falafel challenge.
As it turns out, falafel was only difficult to make because I was resisting the instructions that were right in front of me the whole time. I tried to make them from canned chickpeas (which doesn’t work) and then I tried making them with canned chickpeas that were subsequently roasted and dried out in the oven (which also doesn’t work). When I finally gave in and tried them the correct way, they turned out terrific! What is the correct way, you ask? Using chickpeas that have been soaked but not cooked.
My favorite thing about cooking—besides the obvious enjoyment of delicious food that’s made cheaper at home than you would buy somewhere out—is the science behind it, and it turns out there is a perfectly good reason that soaked, uncooked chickpeas are the best bet for perfect falafel. Thank goodness for J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, the culinary genius who runs “The Food Lab,” and a frequent contributor on the Serious Eats website. He is sort of an Alton Brown for the new generation, and his scientific explanation on falafel is the best I’ve read to date. Here’s the upshot: soaking rehydrates the chickpeas so you can work with them, and it keeps the sticky starches trapped inside. Those starches get released when the chickpeas are cooked during frying (or baking), and that starch release is what helps the falafel rounds hold together. If the chickpeas are already cooked (as in canned), the starch is spent, and you end up with a mess. My ridiculous attempts to return canned chickpeas to a firmer, drier texture by roasting them in the oven didn’t work because they were still already cooked. This time around, I followed the science offered by J. Kenji, and guess what I ended up with? Near-perfect falafel.
In a weird twist of fate, the best way also happened to be the easiest of the methods I had previously tried. Soaking the chickpeas took almost no effort, then I drained and rinsed them in a colander, rolled them around on paper towels to wick away excess moisture, and then pulsed them in my food processor with a fat handful of fresh herbs and generous amounts of Mediterranean spices. Further following J. Kenji’s advice, I kept my falafel small, using my large cookie dough scoop to compact them into rounds, which I fried up nicely in a shallow skillet. For the love of flavor, why did I wait so long to follow the rules?
Falafel is great as a pick-up snack, dipped in tahini-lemon sauce. We enjoyed it as a sandwich filler, nestled with lettuce, tomatoes and pickles into a warm, whole grain soft pita. My husband and I agreed that the flavors in this revelatory batch of falafel could stand to be a little bolder, and maybe even a bit more garlicky. I will play with the seasonings a bit on my next go, and you can bet that I won’t be waiting a year.
1 cup dried chickpeas, sorted and rinsed
4 cups cold or room temperature water
Several scallions (white and green parts)
About 2 cups loosely packed fresh Mediterranean herbs* (see notes)
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and rough-chopped
1 tsp. each cumin and coriander seeds*
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne (optional)
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Several grinds black pepper
A few teaspoons flour (if needed), as a binder for overly wet falafel mixture*
Falafel is of Middle East origin, so the Mediterranean herbs work best here. Parsley (curly or flat), mint, dill and cilantro (also called “fresh coriander”) all work great in this recipe, but I would not recommend basil, thyme or rosemary. It is essential that you use fresh herbs for this recipe, as they contribute texture in addition to flavor. After rinsing the fresh herbs, take time to also dry them on a clean kitchen towel or layers of paper towel, so that you don’t add unwanted moisture to the falafel mixture.
I prefer the intensity of freshly ground seed spices, but if you only have pre-ground cumin and coriander, it’s no problem. Use slightly less, perhaps 3/4 tsp. of each.
Ideally, the chickpea mixture will hold together without the flour binder. But I found that a few sprinkles of flour were necessary to pick up lingering moisture. I used a tablespoon of garbanzo bean flour, but all-purpose or rice flour would probably work also.
Everything about this recipe is upside-down for me. It defies almost every cooking instinct I live by, except the most important one—it’s delicious! Cincinnati Chili is unlike any other chili you’ve tried. It does not have spicy Mexican or even smoky Tex-Mex flavors, and that’s because its roots are Mediterranean. The cooking begins not with browning meat and onions, but with water and a small amount of tomato juice in the pan. The spices come next, and they are not the ones you would ordinarily associate with chili—including cinnamon, cloves, allspice and bay leaf. The raw meat is simmered directly in the liquid, so it stays very fine-textured (much like my recipe for hot dog chili). And the most noticeable difference is in the presentation—this “chili” is served on a bed of spaghetti and buried under shredded cheddar cheese, and any “way” you like it. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like chili at all.
This tasty dish was born when two brothers settled in Cincinnati, Ohio from their native Greece and opened a restaurant. Their recipe for a hot dog chili topping was seasoned with all the flavors of the Mediterranean, and it was such a hit with the locals, they eventually began serving it as a signature entrée, and “Cincinnati chili” earned its title as the most iconic food of the city.
My first taste of Cincinnati chili did not happen in southwestern Ohio, but in Greensboro, N.C., in a hidden little downtown gem called Cincy’s. It’s a woman-owned business with bragging rights of being the city’s oldest downtown eatery. This out-of-the-way place is only open three hours a day for lunch, and it happens to be a short walk from the radio station where I used to work. Despite the limited hours, Cincy’s was usually jumping, and though it offers a wide variety of sandwiches, wraps and burgers, the restaurant is best known for its namesake, Cincinnati-style chili.
I looked at several “authentic” online recipes for this dish, and especially at the reviews, to see what natives of Cincy—the experts, if you will—had to say in feedback, and that became the basis for my version. This final composition is based on my taste buds’ memory of those downtown lunches from yesteryear.
What I have plated up here is every bit as good as I remember, though I’m sure I’ll have to visit Cincy’s again soon, just to be sure!
2 3/4 cups water
1 cup tomato sauce or strained puree (no chunks!)
1 lb. lean ground meat* (see ingredient notes)
4 cloves fresh garlic, minced
¼ cup red wine vinegar*
1 Tbsp. chili powder*
1 ½ tsp. cocoa powder
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika
1 tsp. smoked paprika*
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. ground cloves
¼ tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. kosher salt (or 3/4 tsp. regular table salt)
Several twists freshly ground black pepper
2 dried bay leaves
½ lb. spaghetti (I used whole wheat)
1 can light red kidney beans, rinsed and warmed
½ cup finely minced onion
4 oz. finely shredded cheddar (I used medium sharpness)
Oyster crackers, if desired
Any combination of lean (90%) ground beef or turkey works well in this recipe, but for a vegetarian version you could substitute with a combination of cooked lentils and cracked bulgur wheat, as they do at the restaurant where I first enjoyed this dish. Follow the package recommendations for cooking time of those products and add them to the pot at the appropriate time to avoid overcooking them.
Apple cider vinegar would probably work in this recipe as well, but given that the recipe has Mediterranean roots, I used red wine vinegar, which is typical in Greek cuisine.
Chili powder is one of those spice ingredients that is different from one brand to the next. Peek at the label to see whether your chili powder contains salt or any other ingredients you may want to adjust in the overall recipe.
My smoked paprika is a sweet (not hot) variety. The slight smokiness was nice in this dish, but if you don’t have this, you could simply double the amount of regular sweet paprika.
Combine all the dry seasonings (except bay leaves) in a bowl and set aside.
Combine the water and tomato sauce in a large saucepot, over medium-low heat. Stir in the dry seasonings, garlic and red wine.
Crumble the raw ground meat into the pot and use a utensil or potato masher to break it up as much as possible into a fine texture. Add the bay leaves. Bring the mixture to a low boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until liquid is reduced, and sauce is thick but not dry. Give it at least an hour. Add a bit more tomato sauce and water, as needed, if the sauce has cooked down too much. It should be more meaty than “saucy.”
Cook spaghetti noodles to al dente stage, then drain and immediately toss with a bit of oil or butter to keep the noodles from sticking.
Plate spaghetti and top with meat sauce, plus any of the other toppings you like. Here’s how they break it down, Cincy style:
“2-way” = spaghetti with chili only
“3-way” = with chili and cheese
“4-way” = with chili, cheese and beans OR chili, cheese and onions
“5-way” = with chili, cheese, beans AND onions (the best)!
One clear advantage to growing your own garden vegetables is that you have a wider range of varieties and sizes of veggies to choose from. I can find zucchini, for example, at my local supermarket, but only smallish ones that can be fried, steamed or skewered. Because this year we gave in to the deer and decided to forego attempting our own garden, I had to go to the farmers’ market to get a large zucchini, like the ones everyone gave away for free this time of year in my hometown. I appreciate that unlike grocery store produce, whatever I bring home from the outdoor market was probably hanging on the vine mere hours before.
On our last visit to the market, I was specifically on the lookout for large zucchini because I wanted to make a “boat” out of it. I have enjoyed stuffed zucchini for years, dating back to my hometown days and first apartment meals. Through the years, I have made them with sausage stuffing, ratatouille flavors or Italian-themed ingredients, depending on what else I had in the fridge at the time.
This time, I kept it entirely plant-based and gave it a spicy Moroccan twist. Israeli pearl couscous found its way into the mix, along with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic. I added a robust harissa paste for a big afterburn flavor. It was a double win for me—I got my wish for a hearty garden-based meal, and it was a fun flavor twist that my heat-loving hubby enjoyed, too.
Large zucchini, halved lengthwise and insides scooped out
Olive oil spray
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup Israeli couscous* (see notes)
1 cup vegetable broth
1/2 medium sweet onion, chopped
4 or 5 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Half of a large can of whole peeled tomatoes with puree*
1 tsp. harissa paste (more or less to taste)
1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 Tbsp. melted vegan butter*
Fresh chopped parsley for garnish
Couscous is essentially really tiny pasta, and for this recipe, I used a blend from Trader Joe’s that combines Israeli (“pearl”) couscous, which is larger than regular couscous, with various other ingredients, including split baby garbanzos, orzo (another tiny pasta) and quinoa. Any type of cooked grain would work here, including bulgur, freekah, wheat berries or even brown rice. You need about 1 cup cooked.
I almost always have San Marzano tomatoes in play in my kitchen, and half of a 28 oz. can was about right for this recipe. Use a standard can of diced tomatoes or, obviously, go for fresh! 🙂
There are so many good options for non-dairy “butter.” I am fond of the olive oil version made by Country Crock. It looks, melts and spreads just like dairy butter.
Here’s a quick visual walk-through for making this yummy, plant-based zucchini boat. Steps are listed below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. Enjoy!
Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then score the inside to scoop out the seedy flesh. Cut the flesh up into chunks and toss with salt in a colander to remove excess moisture.
Drizzle, brush or spray olive oil onto the cut sides of the squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the squash on the parchment and roast for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender.
Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
Heat a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil and sauté the onions until softened and translucent. Add mushrooms and zucchini chunks to the pot and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a separate bowl.
Add another swirl of olive oil to the sauce pot and simmer the tomatoes and garlic over low heat until the tomatoes are soft enough to break when pressed. Stir in harissa paste and adjust seasonings to taste. Return the onions and mushrooms to the tomato mixture, along with the cooked couscous and the reserved salted zucchini pieces.
Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
Spoon the couscous filling into the zucchini shells. Top with buttered panko crumbs. Return the zucchini boats to the oven and bake until crumbs are browned and crispy. Serve with chopped parsley sprinkled on top.
My first taste of Greek food came when I was in my early 20s, shortly after I arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C. Unlike the places I’d lived before—upstate N.Y. and a few places in Colorado—this southern city is home to a large community of Greek-Americans. One of my first jobs here was waiting tables at a Greek-owned casual seafood restaurant, where our most popular (though not inherently “Greek”) menu items included breaded and deep-fried flounder and crunchy little seafood nuggets known as “popcorn shrimp.”
It didn’t take long though before I discovered some of the other Greek-owned eateries in town that offered an authentic, mouthwatering specialty called souvlaki, a lemon and herb-seasoned marinated meat, grilled on skewers and served with any number of authentic sides. Depending on the time of day, you might be served souvlaki with seasoned rice or lemon-herb potatoes, or with Greek feta salad and pita. But always on the side with souvlaki is tzatziki, a Greek yogurt-based condiment with shredded cucumber, garlic and dill.
Some of the new words associated with these delectable foods were hard for me to say at first, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the incredible flavors of Greek food. This fall, perhaps when our new kitchen is completed, I look forward to making a classic pastitsio or moussaka, both of which are baked comfort to the nth degree, rich with warm spices and creamy béchamel.
But today, I’m focused on the food to work best with summer grilling, and that is souvlaki. Traditionally, souvlaki would be made with chunks of lean pork, but there are just as many restaurants around here that put the same flavors and treatment on pieces of chicken breast, and it is positively delicious. Feel free to cut boneless chicken breasts into chunks for your souvlaki—that would be the more traditional way, after all—or you can take the easy way, as I have, and marinate whole chicken tenders, skip the skewers and toss the tenders right onto the grill.
Souvlaki is delicious with warm, soft pita breads and zesty tzatziki sauce, which is easy to make while you wait for the marinade magic to happen. You might also serve your souvlaki up with a batch of the cool tzatziki potato salad I shared a few days ago. Before long, you’ll join me in shouting the traditional Greek celebration exclamation—OPA!
1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders
1 whole organic lemon, juiced (plus the zest)
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
About 4 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Pat the chicken tenders dry, but do not rinse them. Lightly sprinkle with kosher salt and toss to coat.
In a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl, combine lemon juice, zest, vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Take note of the volume this mixture has in the bowl. Whisk the marinade mixture while streaming in enough olive oil to roughly double the volume of the marinade.
Add the chicken tenders to the marinade and use tongs to thoroughly toss and coat them. As much as possible, press the tenders to be fully submerged in the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least six hours.
When you are ready to cook the tenders, simply remove them from the marinade and place them directly onto the pre-heated grill. There is no need to rinse them or even to scrape the marinade from the tenders.
1 Persian cucumber (or 1/2 medium slicing cucumber), peeled, seeded and finely chopped or grated
A couple pinches of kosher salt
1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or substitute sour cream if you must)
Line a small custard cup with a paper towel. Add the chopped or grated cucumber and stir with salt. Wrap the paper towel over the cucumbers and allow this to sit in the fridge 30 minutes to release and absorb excess moisture.
Combine cucumbers with yogurt, garlic and dill. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.
It’s that moment when you find that the package of chicken you were counting on for dinner is two days past its “best by” date. Or the panic that hits you when you suddenly realize at the end of a hectic work-from-home day that you completely forgot to go to the grocery store. Moments such as these demand improvisation, and when catastrophe occurs, I have one Plan B that I can always count on—breakfast for dinner.
Even if it’s slim pickings in the refrigerator, there’s a very good chance I have eggs and few random vegetables. There’s always some kind of cheese in the deli drawer, and that already sounds like an omelet in the making, which is our go-to dish when we are looking at breakfast for dinner. But this time, I went all in on a big-flavor frittata, pulling together a Greek theme with spinach, onions and red bell peppers I found in the fridge, along with some feta cheese, kalamata olives, oregano and dill. And though frittatas—which are basically quiche’s crustless cousins—usually only have eggs and fillings, this one takes advantage of that half-bag of shredded potatoes I found in the back of the cheese drawer. OK, who’s hungry?
Turning random leftovers into a flavorful breakfast for dinner on a busy weeknight? That’s Comfort du Jour.
Simply Potatoes is a brand of pre-shredded potatoes, usually found in the refrigerated breakfast section of the supermarket, or sometimes in dairy (though I don’t know why). I use this convenience product when I make our favorite Easy Hash Brown Waffles, so I frequently have them in my fridge. If you prefer, use about two cups finely shredded fresh potatoes, but wrap them first in a clean towel and squeeze out as much water as you can. Better yet, skip the potato crust and make it a more traditional frittata. May as well keep it simple. 😉
For readers abroad, “half and half” is a common dairy ingredient in the U.S. that is essentially equal parts cream and whole milk. If you are minimizing fat in your diet, you may also substitute with evaporated whole milk.
This was simple to make, as you’ll see in the photos. If you’d like written instructions, or a downloadable PDF for your recipe files, keep scrolling.
Preheat oven to 350° F with rack in center of oven.
Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add chopped bacon and cook until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Drain off most of the bacon grease.
Sauté onions and peppers until slightly soft and translucent. Season with salt, pepper and oregano.
Add chopped spinach, one handful at a time, and cook until wilted. Transfer veggies to a separate bowl and set aside. Sprinkle with dried dill.
Increase the skillet heat to medium-high and drizzle in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the shredded potatoes to the skillet, using a spoon or utensil to press it into the sides. Cook the potatoes in the skillet for about five minutes, then transfer the skillet to the oven for about 20 minutes (or additional 10 minutes for crispier crust).
Combine eggs with half and half, whisking only until blended.
When potatoes are golden at the edges, spread the veggies over the crust, and then scatter the crispy bacon pieces.
Pour egg mixture evenly over the frittata filling. Crumble the feta evenly over the frittata.
Transfer to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until eggs are set and edges are pulled away from the skillet.
Cool about 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Top portions with fresh chopped parsley and chopped kalamata olives.
The warmth of summer is fading, and I’m not complaining. My favorite things to cook are autumn and winter foods, and I’m scheming to bring exciting new flavors into the new season.
But we still have to eat between now and then, and the grill has been our BFF this summer, especially as we have challenged ourselves to elevate our home-cooked meals while so many restaurants were closed. Here’s a quick look back at some of the fun grilled foods I’ve put on my plate since I launched Comfort du Jour:
Before the sun sets on summer 2020, I’m throwing down a Mediterranean twist on simple grilled pork chops. I love the flavors of souvlaki, the Greek specialty that highlights the brightness of lemon and pungency of garlic, and is often applied to chicken or pork on skewers, so why not just skip chopping the chops into chunks and just marinate them as they are?
And tasty grilled meat deserves a fresh grilled side, so I have also whipped up a flavorful, healthy salad made with fresh summer tomato, crunchy red onion and marinated grilled zucchini squash. Here we go!
2 thick sliced, bone-in pork chops
4 cloves garlic, minced
Juice of one lemon
1 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar (or any white wine vinegar + pinch of sugar)
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (I used Greek Kalamata)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the salad:
1 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into wedges
1 medium firm tomato, cut into chunks
2 thick slices red onion, cut into chunks
6 Kalamata olives, drained and chopped
Dressing: 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. white balsamic, a few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, whisk in 2 Tbsp. olive oil.
Feta cheese, cut into cubes
Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish
Take a walk through the slideshow for visual instruction, and refer to the notes below if you need them. Remember, you can download the recipe in PDF format to try it yourself, and please let me know how it comes out for you!
Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
In a glass measuring cup, combine lemon juice, vinegars, oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle olive oil into the blend, whisking constantly, until mixture is emulsified. Stir in minced garlic.
Pour most of the marinate over the pork chops in a glass dish and set aside for 30 minutes. Turn once or twice during marinating time to ensure even distribution of flavor.
Pour the remaining marinade over the zucchini strips in another dish. Salt and pepper the zucchini and set those aside while you chop and prep the remaining salad ingredients.
Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
Prepare grill and pre-heat to about 450° F (medium). Carefully place the pork chops over direct heat and sear each side about 1 minute to seal in juices. Then reduce the heat to about 350° F. The olive oil may cause flare-ups, so keep that cold beer in your hand to splash if necessary. Just kidding; either keep a squirt bottle nearby or use a grill tool to try to put out the flare or move the chops.
Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
When you turn the chops, pile the zucchini onto the grill also, and turn them frequently to cook evenly and to get those beautiful grill marks.
Allow the finished chops to rest and chop the zucchini spears into bite-sized chunks. Immediately toss the grilled zucchini with the rest of the salad ingredients. Whisk the dressing briefly, then pour over salad and toss gently to combine. Scatter cubes of feta and fresh parsley over salad and serve alongside the pork chops.
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. 😊
This recipe has become one of my go-to breads. It’s simple to make and doesn’t require use of the oven, which is great when the weather is warm. This is an adaptation of a recipe from King Arthur Flour. Theirs is great, but I always substitute a portion of whole wheat flour into the recipe, and I add milled flax seed and onion flavor to this one as well. It’s an unusual style of recipe, which begins with “cooking” some of the flour with boiling water. This unique method, and the addition of potato flakes, results in a very soft, bendable pita bread—perfect for gyros or souvlaki wraps, but you can also cut them into wedges and drag through a bowl of fresh hummus. Yum!
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided* (see notes)
1 cup whole wheat flour* (I use KAF’s white whole wheat)
1 1/4 cups boiling water
1/2 cup dried potato flakes*
1 tsp. milled flax seed (optional)
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. instant yeast*
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Accurately measure the flour by fluffing it, spooning it into measuring cup, and leveling off.
Look for potato flakes without added ingredients (Whole Foods has them). Or use real cooked potato and only 3/4 cup water in the recipe, and use the potato cooking water.
Instant yeast does not behave in the same way as active dry yeast, which needs to be “proved” first. Dissolve active dry yeast for five minutes in a few tablespoons of warm water, and reduce the overall water in the recipe by the same amount. If your yeast doesn’t become foamy during this step, it’s dead (I’m so sorry for your loss). Next time, keep it in the freezer.
Add 1 cup all-purpose flour and the whole wheat flour into a mixing bowl, and pour the boiling water over it. Mix with a heavy spoon (or use a stand mixer) until combined and smooth. This is going to feel a little bit like paste, but trust me, they will turn out great. Cover and allow mixture to rest 30 minutes.
Combine the remaining all-purpose flour with rest of the dry ingredients and add to the cooked flour paste. Mix until fully incorporated, then add olive oil to the mixing bowl and knead several minutes until dough is smooth and supple. Shape dough into a ball and allow it to rise, covered, in a lightly oiled bowl about 1 hour until it is puffy. If it doesn’t bounce back when you poke it, you’re ready to proceed. If it giggles, well…
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, gently deflate, and cut into eight pieces. Shape the pieces into balls, then cover with a clean towel and allow them to rest 15 minutes. This gives the gluten time to relax so the dough is easier to roll.
Heat a griddle or dry skillet over medium-low heat (about 325° F). While surface is heating, roll out one dough ball at a time (on floured surface) into a thin circle, about 8 inches across. Cook about 1 minute on the first side or until you see toasty flecks on the bottom. Carefully turn to cook the other side 1 minute. The pita breads will puff up quite a bit on the griddle while the second side is cooking. Remove them to a wire rack.
These are best enjoyed right away, but you can also cool them completely and store in a tightly sealed bag at room temperature for about 4 days. King Arthur says you can freeze them, but I’ve never tried it because we always devour them within a day or two. Leftovers (if you have them) are great as scrambled egg wraps.
But wait, there’s MORE!
Souvlaki Bonus Recipe
There’s so much flavor in these tasty little bites, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to make them. They’re mouthwateringly lemony, packed with Mediterranean herbal flavor, and versatile. Serve them on soft pita breads with tzatziki or on top of a Greek salad. They’re also not bad eaten cold, straight from the fridge. Or, so I’ve heard. Give the marinade plenty of time to work its magic—the results are definitely worth the wait!
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast*
Juice of 1 large lemon
1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
3 or 4 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped
2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano
1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
*This marinade is also delicious on pork. Cut up 1 pound of lean pork loin and proceed as for chicken. It would be tasty on shrimp also, but reduce the marinating time to 1 hour and shorten cooking time as well.
Cut chicken breast into bite-size chunks and add them to a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl. In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Drizzle the olive oil into the mixture, whisking constantly, until it’s combined. Pour marinade over the chicken pieces and toss to coat, then cover and refrigerate several hours to overnight.
Preheat gas grill to 400° F. Thread chicken pieces onto skewers or use a grilling pan. Discard remaining marinade. Cook chicken 12 to 14 minutes, turning to cook all sides, until edges are lightly charred and crispy, and juices run clear. Enjoy on a Greek salad or soft pita breads.
That was the matter-of-fact statement printed on some of the commemorative T-shirts for our local Greek festival a few years back. It was supposed to end the controversy of the traditional handheld pita sandwich, which some people (including my NYC-born husband) call “JYE-row.”
Let the dispute rage—however you say it, these things are absolutely delicious and I’ve only recently learned to make them at home. This time of year, my community would normally be gearing up for the annual Greek festival, a three-day event filled with traditional food and music and dance and laughter and oh-so-heavenly Greek pastries—but alas, we are not doing anything “normal” this year, are we? The festival, I’m told by an insider, will be pushed back to at least September, if they are able to do it at all with whatever social distancing guidelines might be in place months from now.
To help temper our collective craving for Greek deliciousness, I’ve decided to share a few of my own recipes, including my take on a “YEAR-Oh” recipe I received quite by accident. My aunt had texted me in search of a good but easy flatbread recipe, and after I figured out she wasn’t referring to the pizza crust-type of flatbread, but the handheld pita-type, I asked what she planned to do with them. “Gyros,” she texted.
Hold the phone—what? She makes her own gyros? This is one of my favorite Mediterranean food items, a primary reason for my love of the Greek festival, and yet it had not occurred to me to try to make them at home. Thankfully, our chance conversation about flatbread has changed all that.
This recipe for gyro meat is remarkably simple to make, and would be delicious with just onions, garlic, rosemary and oregano, as it was given to me, but my husband and I really like a good bit of spice, so I substituted a blend of other Mediterranean spices that had worked very well on some lamb chops a few months ago, and guess what? Winner, winner—gyro dinner. For good measure, I’m also sharing my easy, four-ingredient recipe for tzatziki sauce and the homemade soft pita breads that are in my regular rotation.
You can use ground beef or ground lamb in this recipe, or some combination of both, as I did. One of the keys of the recipe is processing the ground meat into an ultra-smooth texture before cooking it. Skipping this step will leave you with something more like meatloaf or burgers, so don’t be tempted to pass on it. If you have time to chill the cooked gyro meat overnight, you’ll be able to slice it ultra-thin for a really authentic result. Authentic enough, anyway, to hold us over until September.
1.5 pounds ground beef or lamb or both (at least 85% lean)
1 cup very finely chopped onion
4 cloves garlic, very finely minced
1/2 tsp. cumin
1/2 tsp. ground coriander
1/4 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano leaves
1/4 tsp. ground cardamom
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
Soft pita breads*, tzatziki sauce, fresh tomatoes, chopped red onion
*These are delicious on my homemade soft pita breads, or you may use something simple and ready-made, like the garlic naan breads available at Trader Joe’s.
Combine meat, onions, garlic and spices in a large bowl. Refrigerate mixture at least 2 hours. Working in batches, process meat mixture until it’s smooth and homogenized. If you’re cooking and serving right away, shape mixture into a compact oval-shaped mound in a cast iron skillet, and bake at 325° F for about 1 hour, until meat is fully cooked and very firm, even slightly dry. If you’re serving right away, cut the meat into thin slices and enjoy on warm pita breads with your favorite toppings. Keep scrolling for work-ahead tips.
If you have time to work ahead, mound the processed meat onto a large piece of plastic wrap, and roll it up as tightly as you can, twisting the ends (similar to a sausage chub) so that the meat mixture is as compact as possible. Chill for a few hours, up to overnight, then proceed with the recipe.
After baking, cool and chill meat overnight again for ultra-thin slices. To reheat chilled gyro slices, grill on an oiled skillet until edges are lightly crispy.
Tzatziki Sauce – a must with your homemade gyros!
1 Persian cucumber*, peeled, seeded and finely chopped or grated
A couple pinches of kosher salt
1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or substitute sour cream in a pinch)
2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
1 tsp. fresh dill leaves, finely chopped
*English or slicing cucumbers work in this recipe, too. I like the smaller size of the Persian cukes because one is just right for many of my recipes, and I don’t have to wrap up leftovers. You want about 1/3 cup of cucumber. Whichever type you use, be sure to remove the seeds and excess moisture.
Line a small custard cup with a paper towel. Add the chopped or grated cucumber and stir with a sprinkling of kosher salt. Wrap the paper towel over the cucumbers and allow this to sit in the fridge for 30 minutes to draw out and absorb excess moisture.
Combine cucumbers with yogurt, garlic and dill. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve with gyros.