I used to think moussaka was just one thing: the classic Greek dish that layers eggplant, potatoes, ground meat and tomato sauce under a bubbling top of bechamel. And while I’ve certainly seen plenty of vegetarian recipes — simply leaving out the meat or replacing it with, say, chopped mushrooms — it wasn’t until I was flipping through “The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook” that I realized I was wrong, in two ways.
Wrong, first, to think moussaka was always what I had thought. In fact, as author Salma Hage writes, “every country and every region has their own version of this much-loved dish.” Every country in that part of the world, anyway. The ingredients and preparation vary: In Turkey, it’s not typically layered and doesn’t have the bechamel topping. In Romania, it’s made with pork and might include cabbage. And so on.
My second mistake was in assuming that any vegetarian version would be an adaptation of the “real” thing. But what drew me to Hage’s rendition was her description of it as traditionally Lebanese.
When she was growing up in Lebanon, she ate a mostly vegetarian diet, “but it was not by choice,” Hage, 74, told me in a Skype conversation from London, where she lives. “We didn’t have a lot of money. We just ate meat now and then, when it was available.”
The author of the 500-recipe tome “The Lebanese Kitchen” in 2012, Hage has never been vegetarian, but her son and grandson are, which is why she wrote “The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook” (Phaidon, 2016). And she included moussaka — called maghmour in Lebanon, which she says translates to “different layers” — because she has always loved it: as a Lenten dish, as part of a mezze spread, even as a main course with a little rice. Her maghmour is a hearty casserole of eggplant, tomato sauce and chickpeas.
My favorite elements of the recipe are that sauce, which gets its deep flavors from the multiplicity of tomato forms (fresh, sun-dried, paste and canned), and the seasoning blend, a classic combination of warming spices that coats the eggplant disks (along with flour) for an initial baking. But the best thing for modern cooks might be the fact that this, like so many Middle Eastern dishes, is designed to be served cold or at room temperature. That led me to discover what may be the best way to eat it: leftovers for lunch, at my desk.
8 to 10 servings
This recipe uses a classic spice blend that gives it a unique flavor, but if you’d, like you can substitute another Middle Eastern blend, such as za’atar or baharat.
This recipe makes more spice blend than you’ll need; it can be used on a wide variety of vegetables and in salad dressings, dips and more.
MAKE AHEAD: The spice blend can be stored in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
Adapted from “The Middle Eastern Vegetarian Cookbook,” by Salma Hage (Phaidon, 2016),
For the 7-spice blend
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 tablespoons plus 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cloves
2 tablespoons freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons ground fenugreek
2 tablespoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the eggplant and chickpeas
3 1/2 cups cooked, no-salt-added chickpeas (from two 14-ounce cans), drained and rinsed
1/2 cup gluten-free flour blend (may substitute all-purpose flour)
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 large eggplants (about 3 pounds), trimmed and cut into 1/2-inch disks
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
For the sauce
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
6 large tomatoes (about 4 1/2 pounds), finely chopped
7 sun-dried tomatoes, preferably oil-packed, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
One 14-ounce can no-salt-added diced or chopped tomatoes
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon unsweetened pomegranate molasses (optional)
Juice of half a lemon
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
For the 7-spice blend: Combine the allspice, cloves, nutmeg, ground fenugreek, ground ginger, pepper and cinnamon in a small bowl or jar and thoroughly mix. The yield is 1 scant cup; reserve 4 teaspoons for this dish and store the rest (for up to 1 month).
For the eggplant and chickpeas: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. Have a large, deep baking dish or casserole at hand. Drain the chickpeas.
Whisk together the flour, the 4 teaspoons of 7-spice blend and the salt on a large plate. Dab each side of the eggplant disks in the flour mix so they are lightly coated, discarding whatever flour mix is left. Lay them on the lined baking sheets, drizzle them with the oil and bake until fork-tender, about 20 minutes. Let cool while you make the tomato sauce.
For the sauce: Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until it starts to soften, 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then stir in the cumin and bay leaf and cook, continuing to stir frequently, until the cumin is fragrant. Stir in the finely chopped fresh tomatoes and their juices, the sun-dried tomatoes, tomato paste, diced or chopped canned tomatoes, water, pomegranate molasses, if using, the lemon juice, salt and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, to form a sauce that is thick and rich and has reduced, 30 to 40 minutes. Taste, and add salt and pepper as needed. Turn off the heat, and discard the bay leaf.
To assemble, create a layer of about one-third of the baked eggplant disks in the bottom of the baking dish or casserole. Top with about one-third of the chickpeas and one-third of the sauce. Repeat in two more layers, finishing with the sauce. Bake (uncovered) until bubbling around the edges, about 40 minutes. Let cool slightly, and serve warm or at room temperature.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 260 calories, 10 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 210 mg sodium, 12 g dietary fiber, 16 g sugar
Recipe tested by Joe Yonan; e-mail questions to email@example.com