I’ve written before, and at length, about the challenge of cooking for those on some kind of specialist diet or another, be it for weight loss or some other health and well-being enhancing reason. Funny that I should be quite so reluctant to follow something like that myself. Perhaps it’s the necessity to cater for others that makes me adopt such an ‘I don’t need this’ and an ‘I can eat anything’ kind-of a stance. Just to address the balance.
So I made a moussaka a few days ago. It was packed with tender minced lamb, hefty rich dark chicken stock (oh yeah, home made of course), a bit of Bovril to enhance the meaty flavours, and topped with a really thick creamy béchamel sauce that set like a custard under a thin crust of crispy toasted parmesan. I shared it with another performer, sat in a tent at the excellent Machynlleth Comedy Festival in mid-Wales, after a seven hour drive, followed by putting up tents in the wind and rain, and it was very welcome indeed. We had it with a halved avocado sprinkled with coarse sea salt, black pepper, crushed chilli and trickle of olive oil and lime juice, and an enamel cup of rough red wine.
But having enjoyed it so much I wanted Nikki (my wife) to eat it too, and she’s following a gluten-free and (sort of) vegan diet at the moment (‘sort of’ because she’s eating fish, but no meat and no dairy). So when I got back I came up with this vegan version which really is absolutely delicious, as well as being inexpensive. And I think the vegan ‘béchamel’ is a revelation.
100% Vegan Moussaka
1 large onion (finely chopped)
3 cloves garlic (thinly sliced)
a generous handful of chopped rosemary
1 red pepper (diced)
a small handful of raisins (chopped)
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1 pinch crushed chilli flakes
250g puy lentils
1 tin plum tomatoes
1 generous squeeze tomato puree
1 teaspoon marmite
lots of black pepper
Sweat the onion in a generous amount of olive oil until its softened. Add the garlic and the rosemary and sweat for a couple more minutes. Then add the peppers and cook for a further five mins or so. You want to really get a lot of caramelised flavours from these vegetables. Next add the lentils, raisins, cinnamon and chilli and fry them around for a bit before pouring in about 1/2 pint of cider. Let this bubble away and reduce for a few minutes and then add stock and the tinned tomatoes (squashed between your fingers to bust them up). I don’t know how much stock I used, not loads as the sauce doesn’t want to be too sloppy. I think I poured in stock until the lentils were covered by about 1cm and then added more as the liquid was absorbed. Cover and let the mixture cook on a gentle simmer for about 40 mins. You want a little bit of bite to the lentils. When it’s done take a couple of cupfuls and puree them in a blender before returning to the pan. It just makes the base a bit thicker and creamier.
Leave it and let it cool a bit.
THE OTHER LAYERS
500g potatoes (peeled and sliced into 5mm disks)
2 large aubergines (sliced a little thicker)
Fry the potato slices in olive oil until lightly browned on each side and just cooked through. Do the same with the aubergine. You can salt the aubergine first but I don’t think it’s really necessary.
Set these aside.
THE VEGAN ‘BECHEMAL’
1/2 an onion (finely chopped)
1 large cauliflower (roughly chopped)
salt and pepper
Sweat the onion in a few tablespoons of olive oil until soft and then add the cauliflower. Stir a bit, season, and pour in about 1/2 pint of water. Bring it to a simmer, cover, and cook for about 15 mins, occasionally string the top bits to the bottom. You want to cauliflower really soft.
Let it cool, add a bit more oil and puree in a blender until super smooth. Return to the pan and if it’s not thick enough (you want it to be thicker than custard but not as thick as mashed potato) you can slake it with a little cornflour in cold water.
Check the seasoning, add more black pepper and a good grating of nutmeg.
Finally, assemble. In a deep over-proof dish which you’ve lightly oiled put half the aubergine in a layer on the bottom, followed by a layer of potato slices (all of them) and then half the ragu. Then another layer of aubergine and the rest of the rag. Finally pour over the ‘béchamel’, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with black pepper and a dusting of paprika. (You could add breadcrumbs too, but I didn’t). And bake at about 190ºC for around 30-40 mins.
I think it’s better at room temperature, and when cooler it’s more likely to keep it’s shape, which looks so good I’m sure you’ll agree.
Who needs meat or dairy eh? Well, I think I do, but not all the time.