It’s that time of year again, my friends… Shavuot! That means it’s time to indulge in all kinds of dairy deliciousness. Like most Jewish holidays, Shavuot has a food component– it’s a dairy holiday, so milk products are featured. Because of the kosher laws, mixing milk and meat is off limits, so Shavuot entrees must either be vegetarian or fish (for most Jews fish is considered neutral, or pareve, and can be served with either milk or meat). This gives us a decadent excuse to enjoy dishes full of cream, butter, and my personal favorite– cheese!
For an illustrated history of the Shavuot holiday, you can check out the blog I wrote about it last year: Shavuot, Ruth, and Cheesecake. The blog also includes a super yummy cheesecake recipe that I would encourage you all to try! (provided you’re not lactose intolerant…)
This year, I wanted to add some different, more exotic dishes to my Shavuot menu. I started looking through my recipe files and found an old vegetarian moussaka recipe that a friend gave to me years ago. I played with it this week, making all kinds of changes to add flavor and texture. The recipe I ended up with is the one I’m sharing today.
Moussaka originated in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe. Traditionally a dish made with meat and cheese, moussaka has been adapted by Sephardic Jews in the Mediterranean in two ways– either by omitting the cheese and béchamel sauce to make a meat moussaka, or by omitting the meat to make a vegetarian version. Like many ancient dishes, moussaka has a number of regional variations. Alan Davidson explains these variations in his Oxford Companion to Food:
“Moussaka or musaka, often written as musakka, is a meat and vegetable stew, originally made from sliced aubergine (eggplant), meat, and tomatoes, and preferably cooked in an oven. This is the version current among the Turks and Arabs, who may also substitute courgettes (zucchini) for the aubergines. In the Balkans, more elaborate versions are found. The Greeks cover the stew with a layer of beaten egg or béchamel sauce. Elsewhere in the Balkans mussaka has become a much more various oven-baked casserole, admitting many more vegetables than aubergine or courgette, often dropping tomatoes and even meat. Bulgarian and Yugoslav versions emphasize eggs, and a given recipe may consist of eggs, cheese, potatoes, and spinach, or eggs, cheese, sauerkraut, and rice. In Romania, which considers musaca a national dish, the vegetables may be potatoes, celery, cabbage, or cauliflower–or may be replaced by noodles.”
Eggplant is the main ingredient in most moussaka recipes, with good reason. It is easily grown and cultivated throughout the Mediterranean. Sephardic Jews prize the eggplant as an affordable, healthy dietary staple that can be prepared in numerous ways. In fact, during a second Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1580 (when the two countries united under one crown), eggplant became known as the “Jew’s apple” because of its frequent usage in Sephardic Jewish cuisine.
My Vegetable Moussaka is Greek-style, topped with rich and creamy béchamel sauce. I make the sauce with lowfat milk, so the dish is actually quite light even though it tastes rich. I’ve added both feta cheese and grated pecorino (or parmesan) for flavor and texture, as well as lentils for a meat/protein substitute. I’ll warn you in advance, it’s not an easy dish to prepare. While the steps themselves are pretty simple (and well explained below), the process can be time consuming. This dish would be best suited to a special occasion, like a holiday Shavuot dinner or a Sunday family gathering, when you have some free time to assemble the ingredients. Serve the leftovers for Meatless Monday! You can cut down a lot on prep time by peeling and slicing the veggies in advance– cover them with cold water to keep them fresh till you’re ready to cook (do not prep the eggplant in advance– it’s best to slice it right before you salt it, not beforehand). I’ve included a few tips at the end of the recipe for cutting down on prep time. The end result is worth the effort– it’s a really delicious dish. Nobody will miss the meat!
Gluten Free Modification: This recipe is almost gluten free, but it will take a couple of modifications to make it completely GF. The original recipe uses flour to thicken the béchamel sauce. Substitute King Arthur’s Gluten Free Multi-Purpose Flour or a small amount of potato starch as a thickener. Also, make sure that your balsamic vinegar is certified GF. Finally, if you’re using a pre-grated parmesan, check to make sure that it is purely cheese (no modified starches in the mix). This will ensure that your moussaka is gluten free.
Vegetarian Note: If you are a vegetarian, you will want to make sure that your parmesan or pecorino cheese is vegetarian (produced without animal rennet). Most health food stores and specialty grocers like Whole Foods and Trader Joes carry vegetarian parmesan. Check your cheese label to make sure it says vegetarian before purchasing.
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- 1 cup dry brown lentils, rinsed and sorted
- 2-3 medium eggplants (about 3 lbs. total), peeled
- 3 medium zucchini, sliced thin
- 3 large russet potatoes (1 ½ lb. total), peeled and sliced thin
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 roasted red bell peppers, sliced thin
- 2 cans (15 oz. each) diced tomatoes
- 3 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, chopped
- 1/2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 10 tbsp grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
- 4 tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 tbsp all purpose white flour
- 3 cups milk
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg, or more to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Salt and pepper
You will also need
- Medium saucepan, 2 baking sheets, medium bowl, sauté pan, paper towels, whisk, large baking dish or pan (9x13)
- Place lentils in saucepan, cover with 5 cups of water and ¼ tsp of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium and simmer for 30-45 minutes until the lentils are tender.
- Meanwhile, cut the eggplants into thin slices. Place the slices in a single layer on a bed of paper towels. Sprinkle the eggplant with salt and let stand for 30 minutes.
- Place racks on the upper and lower thirds of your oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Lightly grease two baking sheets with extra virgin olive oil. Spread out the zucchini, potatoes, and two garlic cloves in a single layer across the baking sheets. Brush the exposed tops of the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with black pepper.
- Place baking sheet with potatoes on the upper rack of the oven (keep garlic cloves on top rack baking sheet). Place sheet with zucchini on the lower half. Roast veggies for 10 minutes. Remove sheets from oven, stir, and place them back in the oven, switching racks (zucchini and garlic on top, potatoes on bottom). Roast for about 5 more minutes, until veggies are tender and starting to turn golden brown. Remove from oven and scoop veggies into a bowl using a slotted spatula or spoon to drain excess oil. Take the two roasted garlic cloves and chop them up fine; reserve.
- By now, the eggplant slices have been standing for about 30 minutes, and water droplets should have formed on the surface of the slices.
- Re-grease the baking sheets with olive oil. Rinse salt from the eggplant slices, pat dry, and spread into a single layer across the two baking sheets. Brush lightly with olive oil. Place the baking sheets in the oven and roast for 10-15 minutes, switching the baking sheets on upper and lower thirds halfway through cooking, until the slices are tender and lightly golden (check the bottom edges of slices for browning).
- While eggplant is roasting, place a sauté pan or skillet with high sides on the stovetop. Warm up 2 tbsp olive oil in the pan over medium high heat. Sauté diced onion until softened and translucent. Add roasted bell pepper slices and chopped roasted garlic, saute for another 2 minutes. Drain excess water from cooked lentils. Add lentils, diced tomatoes, parsley, balsamic vinegar, oregano, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper to the pan; stir well. Reduce heat to medium and let mixture cook for about 5 more minutes, till warmed through.
- Remove eggplant from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F. Lightly grease your baking dish or pan. Place a single layer of half of the roasted eggplant slices on the bottom of your dish.
- On top of that, place a layer of half the potatoes and half the zucchini.
- Spread the lentil mixture evenly in a single layer across the surface.
- Sprinkle 2 tbsp of grated pecorino or parmesan and ½ cup crumbled feta across the top of the lentil mixture.
- Place the rest of the potatoes and zucchini in another layer on top of the cheese.
- Finish with a layer of the remaining roasted eggplant slices. Sprinkle top of the moussaka with 2 tbsp more of grated cheese.
- Place moussaka in the oven for 20 minutes to bake. Meanwhile, while the moussaka is baking, make the béchamel sauce for the top of the moussaka. In a small pan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk flour into the melted butter till dissolved and thick.
- Continue to whisk for a few minutes until the flour/butter mixture turns a sandy brown color.
- Slowly whisk in milk. Bring mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium low.
- Whisk in 2 tbsp grated cheese. Continue whisking for about 10 minutes until the sauce starts to thicken. Remove from heat. Let stand for 4-5 minutes till slightly cooled. Add ¾ tsp salt, nutmeg, and black pepper to taste. Whisk the beaten egg into the sauce.
- Remove the moussaka from the oven. Pour sauce evenly across the top of the moussaka. Sprinkle ¼ cup grated cheese on top of the sauce.
- Put moussaka back in the oven. Cook for another 25-30 minutes until the top is golden brown and the moussaka is cooked through.
- Serve hot. This moussaka is less structured than traditional moussaka, with a texture that is more similar to a lasagna—so don’t expect it all to hold together neatly when served (it will hold together better after it has cooled). Add crushed red peppers or hot sauce for spice, if desired.
- NOTES: This moussaka takes quite a bit of time to prepare, but you can cut down the prep time substantially with a few simple modifications. Buy jarred roasted peppers so you don't need to roast them yourself. Buy 1 can cooked lentils (about 1 1/2 cups) and skip pre-boiling the lentils till tender. Buy smaller eggplants, which are less prone to bitterness, and skip the salting step. These simple modifications should cut your prep time by close to 45 minutes.