I love aubergines. I love the slightly bitter taste, I love the deep bruised purple colour. They are so fat and shiny and a little bit comic-looking. They taste absolutely divine just salted, drizzled in olive oil and grilled until golden and soft, but this recipe adds salty goat’s cheese and a rich, thick tomato sauce to create a full meal of vegetarian moussaka.
This is a dish that takes some love. I’m not going to pretend that it’s a quick and easy after-work supper (though it won’t take hours, by any means), but it is absolutely worth the effort. Vegetarian moussaka is a great dinner party dish – delicious and indulgent enough to impress, but guests never need to know that it can be made upto 24 hours in advance and refrigerated until you’re ready to pop it in the oven, just before people are due to arrive.
Traditional moussaka this is not. I took inspiration for this recipe from the Honey & Co. book, Food from the Middle East, so it is quite distinct from the Greek moussaka we normally think of. Besides anything else, by making a vegetarian version, lamb is omitted from the dish. Middle Eastern style moussaka cuts out the potato and béchamel sauce featured in the Greek dish, and by grilling the aubergines they’re not as oil-heavy as the traditional method of frying. This recipe makes a light but warming dish, perfect for the turbulent climate of the British springtime.
Making Vegetarian Moussaka another day? Pin it so you don’t forget!
The Vegetarian Moussaka recipe:
- 6 tblspn. olive oil
- 4 aubergines
- Sea salt
- 150g soft, mild goat’s cheese
- 25g or so of hard, parmesan-style cheese
- 1 large (or two small) red onion
- 8 cloves garlic (this may sound like a lot, but don’t shy away from the garlic – the aubergines just soak up all the flavours in this dish, so nothing is overpowering)
- ½ lemon
- ¼ tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. dried oregano, or a few sprigs of fresh
- 1 tblspn. olive oil
- 6-8 tomatoes (depending on the size – around 300g)*
- ½ brown sugar
- 1 400g tin chopped tomatoes*
- 1 tblspn. tomato puree
- black pepper
- Pre-heat the grill to 280 °C, then drizzle a baking tray with 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil. Slice the aubergines lengthways into four and place in a single layer on the tray (this may need to be done in a couple of batches, unless you have an enormous baking tray). Drizzle with another 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil, sprinkle with a little sea salt and grill for 10-15 minutes, then turn them and grill for 10-15 minutes more. The aubergines should be soft and gold and ready to melt on your mouth when they come out. Repeat with the second batch, if required.
- Whilst the aubergine is beginning to grill, prepare the ingredients for the tomato sauce: finely chop the red onions, crush the garlic and cut the lemon into a few thick slices. Roughly chop the fresh tomatoes into dice and keep separate from the rest of the ingredients.
- Heat the olive oil over a medium-low flame in a cast-iron frying pan and add the onions with a drop of water. Cook off for five minutes or so, until they are just starting to brown, then add the garlic, lemon, cinnamon and oregano and cook for another 5 minutes or so.
- Add the fresh tomatoes and sugar and cook for ten minutes more. Stir through the tomato puree, then immediately add the tinned tomatoes, and grind over plenty of black pepper. Turn the heat up a little and allow the sauce to simmer until thick, around 10-15 minutes. Once the sauce is ready, turn the heat off and let it sit until the aubergines are all cooked.
- Slice the goat’s cheese as best you can – the really soft stuff won’t slice very well, but as long as you split it in half you can roughly chop and scatter it as you go. Finely grate the hard cheese, ready to sprinkle.
- When the component parts are all ready (the aubergine grilled, the sauce thick and the cheeses chopped and grated) it is time to assemble the dish - Lay ⅓ of the aubergines on the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Spread over ⅓ of the tomato sauce and top with ½ of the goat’s cheese, scattered as evenly as possible. Repeat with another ⅓ of the aubergines and sauce, and the rest of the goat’s cheese. Add the last of the aubergine and tomato sauce, then sprinkle over the hard cheese, and bake in the oven for 20-25 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling.
*The fresh tomatoes add texture and bring a really summery flavour to the dish, and the tinned take off some of the acidic edge, and make the sauce a little thicker. If you prefer to use all fresh, add an extra ½ tsp. sugar to balance it out, and if you don’t have the time or inclination to chop the fresh tomatoes, use two tins, remove the sugar and cook the sauce for a little longer.