This recipe has been updated from the archives. I retested it and improved the flavor; I also streamlined the cooking process. Enjoy!
Moussaka originated in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe. Like many ancient dishes, it has a number of regional variations. Alan Davidson explains these various approaches 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“Moussaka or musaka, often written as musakka, is a meat and vegetable stew, originally made from sliced aubergine (eggplant), meat, and tomatoes, and preferably cooked in an oven.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, because it is easily grown and cultivated in the Mediterranean. Throughout history the Sephardic Jews have prized the eggplant as an affordable, healthy dietary staple that can be prepared in numerous ways. In fact, during the 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 Roasted Vegetable Moussaka is Greek-style, topped with rich and creamy béchamel sauce. The vegetables are roasted before baking the casserole, which adds lots of wonderful flavor to the finished dish. Lentils serve as a meat substitute here, with lots of vegetables and potatoes to make the dish hearty. Even devoted carnivores may find themselves completely satiated by this recipe.
I’ll warn you in advance, this is NOT an easy dish to prepare. While the steps themselves are pretty simple (and well explained below), the process is time consuming. This dish would be best suited to a special occasion, like a Sunday family gathering, when you have a few hours to prep and assemble the ingredients. Serve the leftovers for Meatless Monday– the dish refrigerates and freezes well. I’ve included a few tips in the recipe for cutting down on prep time. The end result is worth the effort– it’s scrumptious, with layers and layers of amazing flavor.
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. 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 cheeses are vegetarian (produced without animal rennet).
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- 1 1/2 lbs. zucchini (about 3 medium), sliced thin
- 1 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes (about 3 large), peeled and sliced thin
- 3 lbs. small eggplants
- 3 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 onion, diced
- 1 1/2 cups cooked or steamed lentils
- 1 roasted red bell pepper, sliced thin
- 3 cups diced ripe red tomatoes or 2 cans (15 oz. each) diced tomatoes
- 3 tbsp chopped fresh dill
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (if you're spice sensitive use 1/4 tsp)
- 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 10 tbsp grated pecorino or parmesan cheese, divided
- 1/4 cup 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)
- TIME SAVING 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 and buy pre-steamed or canned lentils. Prep all of your vegetables in advance and have all of your items ready to assemble for both the moussaka and the sauce; pausing to hunt for or measure an ingredient every few minutes will increase your cooking time quite a bit. The better you are organized from the beginning, the faster the process will be!
- Place racks on the upper and lower thirds of your oven. Preheat oven to 500 degrees F. Grease two baking sheets with extra virgin olive oil. Spread out the zucchini, potatoes, and 3 garlic cloves in a single layer across the baking sheets. Brush the exposed tops of the vegetables with olive oil and sprinkle lightly with salt and black pepper.
- Place baking sheet with potatoes on the upper rack of the oven. Place sheet with zucchini on the lower half. Roast veggies for 10 minutes. Remove sheets from oven 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 (check the bottoms of the veggies for browning).
- While potatoes and zucchini are roasting, remove the stem ends from the eggplants. Peel strips from the eggplants so that they have thin stripes of peel remaining down the sides (they will be half-peeled).
- Cut the eggplants into 1/2 inch slices.
- When potatoes and zucchini are done roasting, remove them from the oven and scoop veggies into a bowl using a slotted spatula. Take the 3 roasted garlic cloves and chop them, reserve.
- Re-grease the baking sheets with olive oil. Spread eggplant slices into a single layer across the two baking sheets. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. 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. Add cooked lentils, diced tomatoes, fresh dill, oregano, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and 3/4 tsp salt to the pan; stir well. Reduce heat to medium and let mixture cook for about 5 more minutes until warmed through. If using fresh tomatoes, let the mixture cook for 10 minutes until tomatoes are soft.
- When eggplant is done roasting, remove it from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F. Use a slotted spatula to scoop up the eggplant slices and place in a bowl. 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 parmesan cheese.
- Place moussaka in the oven for 20 minutes to bake at 375 degrees F. 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 light sandy brown color.
- Slowly whisk in milk. Bring mixture to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium.
- Whisk in 2 tbsp grated parmesan cheese. Continue whisking for a few minutes until the sauce starts to thicken. Remove from heat. Add ¾ tsp salt, nutmeg, and black pepper to taste. Whisk the beaten egg slowly into the sauce (drizzle the egg while whisking constantly).
- Remove the moussaka from the oven. Pour sauce evenly across the top of the moussaka. Sprinkle ¼ cup grated paremsan cheese on top of the sauce.
- Put moussaka back in the oven. Cook for another 30 minutes until the top is golden brown and the moussaka is cooked through. If the top isn't evenly browned, you can turn on the broiler and broil it for a minute or two-- keep a close eye on it to make sure it doesn't burn.
- Serve hot. Don’t expect it all to hold together neatly when served; it will slice more cleanly and pieces will hold together better after it has cooled.