We know that traditional moussaka is made with lamb (we’ve had plenty made that way), but this one isn’t. That’s why the title isn’t “Traditional Moussaka.” Instead, what we have here is a lighter version of traditional moussaka that tastes just as good, but is nowhere near as oily (a failing of many, many, moussakas, in our opinion) and fatty. Don’t believe us? Read on, and try it out.
We will say that we based this on, well, based is too strong a word; instead, we looked at a traditional recipe for moussaka that we found on the Bon Appetit web page. You can look at it too, if you like, but we think our version is better. Of course we do, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it, right?
We had a medium-sized eggplant, and, after shrinking during baking, we wished we’d had a bit more. So, we’re suggesting that you get a large eggplant. For the lentils, we suggest you try to find the small French lentils known as puy lentils, as they hold their shape after cooking. For the cloves, cinnamon stick, and bay leaf, you’ll fish these out after the sauce is cooked partway: either place them in a small sachet, or count carefully.
Procedure in detail:
Okay, we have a number of things going on, and it looks as if you’ll be cooking all these things in a long sequence. That’s not the case. Most can be made concurrently. Once the eggplant is in the oven they need little attention, so get the lentils going. Once the lentils are covered and simmering, it’s easy to start up the onions and sauce part. Then, after that’s all done, start thinking about the bechamel and assembly. We’ll still describe them in sequential order, though. About those shiitake mushrooms. They add a lot of savoriness, so, if you have them, use ’em. If not, maybe you have other mushrooms that would work. Choose what will work for you.
For the eggplant:
Preheat oven to 450°F. You want a nice hot oven to char the eggplant a bit, so, line a baking sheet for easy cleanup. Unless, of course, you like scrubbing bits of charred eggplant off the pan.
Crush spices and oil. In a small bowl, combine the garlic, oregano, salt, rosemary, and black pepper, and, using the back of a spoon, mash the salt into the garlic to make a paste. Mash the other spices, too, but the garlic is the most important to mash. The salt crystals will act like little knives to cut and tear apart the garlic while you work. Finally, stir in the olive oil.
Coat eggplant. Place the eggplant on your prepared pan. Ideally in one layer, but if they overlap, that’s okay, too. Brush each round with the oil and spice mixture. We would scoop up a bit with a spoon, place it in the center of an eggplant round, then spread it around with the back of the spoon. Continue until all rounds are coated. If you have more oil mixture, flip the rounds and oil the other side, but, if not, don’t fret. We didn’t, either.
Roast. Place the eggplant in the oven and roast until it’s very soft and the edges are charred just a bit, about 40 minutes. Once ready, remove the eggplant and set aside.
Lower oven to 400°F. The final dish of moussaka will bake at this temperature, so set the oven temperature now so you won’t forget it.
For the lentils:
You can do pretty much all of this while the eggplant is baking, so let’s get started. Once you have the lentils going, move on and start the sauce; everything will come together at the end.
Cook lentils. Place the lentils and shiitake mushrooms in a small saucepan along with 1 1/2 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook until tender. Puy lentils will take longer than regular brown lentils, perhaps 30 to 40 minutes. After about 20 minutes, fish out the shiitake mushrooms, dice them (remove the stems as they’re too tough), and return them to the pan. Once the lentils are tender, remove from heat. Don’t worry if all the water hasn’t been absorbed.
Cook onions. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the onions, sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper to get some flavor going, and cook, stirring from time to time, until tender and just starting to brown around the edges, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic, stir, and cook for another minute or until fragrant.
Add wine, tomatoes, and spices. Add the wine, listen to it sizzle, stir or shake it and the onions around, then add the tomatoes. Give everything a good stir, then set the cinnamon stick, bay leaf, and cloves in the sauce and submerge under the liquid. Don’t stir in the cloves, as you’ll be taking them out later, and count them, as you’ll be taking them out later, and you want to get every one. Sneak in the oregano and smoked paprika on the other side of the pan and gently stir that in. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook, partly covered, for about 20-30 minutes. Ideally, this should be about the time your lentils are done.
Add lentils. Stir in the cooked lentils (as a side note, the acid in tomatoes will prevent lentils from becoming tender; that’s why we cook them separately).
Cook dry. Continue to simmer the mixture until all the liquid is evaporated and it seems as though it’s beginning to stick. This will take another 20 minutes or so. When done, remove from heat.
Season. Add the vinegar, taste, and add salt and pepper as needed.
For the bechamel:
Make roux. Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add the flour and stir until smooth and bubbling, about a minute.
Add milk. Switch to a whisk and add the milk in three additions (faster than this and it might lump — not good), whisking between additions until smooth.
Add spices and cheese. Add the salt, nutmeg, and pepper, and whisk in. Finally, whisk in the cheese until smooth.
Cool. We’ll be adding an egg yolk, mainly for color, so we need to let the mixture cool for about 10 minutes, lest we have scrambled egg yolk in our bechamel.
Add egg yolk. Whisk in the egg yolk and you’re ready for the final steps: assembly, baking, and eating.
Layer. Lightly oil the bottom of an 8×8-inch baking pan. Place the eggplant in a single layer (or as close to a single layer as you can) on the bottom. Scoop the lentil mixture over the top and press smooth with the back of a spoon. Finally, scrape the bechamel sauce from the pan over the top of the lentils, smoothing so everything is covered.
Bake. Slide into the oven and bake until everything is bubbling and the bechamel is browned in spots, about 40 minutes.
Rest. While you could serve this moussaka immediately, we really suggest that you give it 30 minutes to settle and set. That way, you can cut it into pieces and lift them out intact, using a spatula.
This really does taste a lot like traditional moussaka; at least, it’s very similar-tasting to any moussakas we’ve had in the past, but without that heavy, greasy taste that some moussaka has. So, we think we kept the best part of moussaka, and eliminated all the bad parts. Definitely, four stars, mainly because it’s an involved recipe. PS: it’s also great left over.