Hearty, comforting and easy, homemade moussaka is the ultimate winter warmer. From an authentic Greek bake to a flavourful vegetarian twist, these recipes are the just the thing to lift your spirits.
Now that the days are feeling distinctly more wintery, we’re on the hunt for hearty food that leaves us with a deep sense of satisfaction. We want flavour, substance and, above all, warmth: the kind that spreads from the pit of our stomach through to our fingertips, and leaves us with a silly, contented grin when we flop down on the sofa after dinner.
Moussaka is definitely one dish that fits the bill. Many of us will already be familiar with the beloved Greek casserole from leisurely lunches spent at roadside taverns on our summer holidays, although plenty other versions exist elsewhere too, from Turkey and Egypt to the Balkans. Naturally, there are cultural idiosyncrasies; from the occasional addition of potatoes and a sprinkling of cinnamon, to the debate over whether to use pork, veal, lamb or beef mince. They all, however, agree on the main ingredients: layers of sliced aubergines, meat cooked in a tomato-based sauce, and thick, creamy béchamel baked together until golden brown.
First up: Theo A Michaels’ cheesy vegetarian moussaka might not contain any mince, but it’s just as intense on flavour thanks to the rich vegetable ragù made from brown lentils, mushrooms and a mix of sweet spices.
For a delicious vegan variation, Katy Beskow’s moussaka bowls make use of lentil mince, griddled aubergine and vegan soya yoghurt for a sweet, charred flavour.
And if you’re after a meaty moussaka with a twist, Olivia Andrews’ shepherd’s moussaka walks the line between three all-time favourite comfort foods – moussaka, shepherd’s pie and spaghetti bolognese. Scroll ahead if you’re intrigued to know how.
All that’s left to do is set your moussaka aside to cool for a little bit, then cut into generous squares and serve with a side of zingy Greek salad. Kali orexi!
Theo A Michaels’ meatless moussaka
Theo says: “Famous the world over, moussaka’s layers of rich meat ragù, potato and aubergine, topped with a white sauce, are a labour of love to create, but worth the effort. My veggie version is just as delicious and I serve it with a simply dressed green salad. The contrast of sharp vinaigrette with a forkful of creamy moussaka always reminds me of dinner at my mum and dad’s.”
- olive oil, for frying/sautéing
- 300g waxy potatoes
- 2 aubergines
- 2 courgettes
- a few pinches of Greek dried oregano
- 25g grated vegetarian Parmesan-style hard cheese
- salt and freshly ground black pepper, to season
For the vegetable ragù:
- 1kg mushrooms, diced
- 1 medium white onion, diced
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- 150g pre-cooked brown lentils
- 3 tablespoons tomato purée
- a handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
- 1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- 12 grates of nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon Greek dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon soft dark brown sugar
For the béchamel sauce
- 75g unsalted butter
- 75g plain flour
- 600ml whole milk
- a 30 x 20cm/12 x 8 inch ovenproof baking dish
Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/400°F/Gas 6.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into 5mm thick slices. Cut the aubergines and courgettes into 1cm thick slices.
Line a tray with paper towels. Heat a splash of oil in a large frying pan set over a medium heat. Add the potato, aubergine and courgette slices in batches and fry/sauté until golden and just cooked through, then transfer to the paper towel-lined tray to drain. Arrange a layer of potato slices in the baking dish, and season with a pinch of oregano and a few grinds of black pepper. Repeat with a layer of aubergine and finally courgette, again adding oregano and seasoning between each layer.
To make the ragù, add a little oil to a medium saucepan and set over a high heat. Add the mushrooms and fry/sauté for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally; you want these deeply caramel coloured. Turn down the heat and add the onion and cook through for another 5 minutes until it has softened and coloured. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, then add the lentils, tomato purée, parsley, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano and sugar. Add about 60ml of water and simmer, uncovered, for 10–15 minutes until the ragù is rich and thick. Spoon this over the layered vegetables, levelling the surface with the back of the spoon.
To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan set over a low-medium heat. Add the flour and stir continuously until a paste forms and cook this for 2 minutes. Add the milk to the pan gradually, whisking as you go, until the sauce has thickened and is smooth. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Gently pour the sauce over the ragù layer, again smoothing out the surface with the back of a spoon. Scatter the grated cheese over the top and cook into the preheated oven for 30 minutes. Leave to rest for 15 minutes before serving with a simply dressed green salad.
From Rustica: Delicious Recipes for Village-Style Mediterranean Food by Theo A Michaels (£16.99, Ryland Peters & Small), out now
Katy Beskow’s moussaka bowls
Katy says: “I love the sweet, charred flavours of moussaka, but rarely have the time for the oven-baked version to be ready. These bowls contain all the flavours and textures of a slow-cooked moussaka, without the wait.”
For the lentil mince:
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed
- 1⁄2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1⁄2 tsp smoked paprika
- 1⁄2 tsp dried oregano
- 400g can chopped tomatoes
- 400g can green lentils, drained and rinsed
- 1 tsp yeast extract
For the aubergines:
- 2 aubergines, sliced into 1cm rounds
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 4 large tomatoes, halved
For the nutmeg yoghurt and garnish:
- 8 tbsp unsweetened soya yoghurt
- pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- pinch of flaked sea salt
- handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly torn
Start by making the lentil mince. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium–high heat and cook the onion for 2–3 minutes until softened but not browned. Add the garlic, cinnamon, paprika and oregano, and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Pour in the chopped tomatoes, lentils and yeast extract, and simmer for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, prepare the aubergines. Heat a griddle pan until hot.
Brush the aubergine slices with the olive oil and place them on the hot pan, cooking them for 2–3 minutes on each side until softened and grill marks appear. Grill the tomatoes for 1 minute, cut-side down.
Spoon the lentil mince into bowls along with the aubergine slices and griddled tomato halves. Spoon over the soya yoghurt and sprinkle with the grated nutmeg.
Season to taste with sea salt and scatter with the parsley.
From 15 Minute Vegan Comfort Food: Simple & Satisfying Vegan Recipes by Katy Beskow (£15, Quadrille, £15), out now
Olivia Andrews’ shepherd’s moussaka
Olivia says: “I’ve been at it again, combining some favourite childhood dishes of mine. I always loved my mum’s shepherd’s pie, but I also loved the topping and the aubergine in moussaka… so why not combine the two and throw in some bolognese sauce as well? I always keep some home-made bolognese in the freezer, as it’s just so handy for dishes such as this.”
- olive oil, for drizzling
- 2 aubergines, cut into 1cm thick rounds
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
- 1 tablespoon worcestershire sauce (optional)
- 150g frozen peas
- 20g finely grated parmesan cheese (optional)
- rocket leaves, to serve (optional)
For the white sauce:
- 375g trimmed cauliflower, coarsely chopped, including the stem
- 1½ tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil (or a combination)
- ½ onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, crushed or finely chopped
- 150g silken tofu, or 400g tin cannellini beans, drained well
- ¼ teaspoon ground white or black pepper
- 25g finely grated parmesan, pecorino or provolone cheese (optional)
For the bolognese sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 250g minced lamb
- 4 anchovy fillets (optional), finely chopped
- 250g mushrooms, finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 1 carrot, scrubbed, then coarsely grated
- 100g sun-dried tomatoes, finely chopped
- 400ml roasted tomato passata or store-bought tomato passata (puréed tomatoes)
- 100g dried puy or French-style lentils
- 500ml stock of your choice
To make the white sauce, process the cauliflower in a food processor until finely chopped. Alternatively, you can finely chop it using a sharp knife. Transfer to a saucepan with 250ml water, season well with sea salt, cover with a lid and place over medium heat. Cook for 15–20 minutes, or until very tender, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat. Sauté the onion and garlic for 6–8 minutes, or until golden and softened. Season with more salt, then transfer the mixture to a blender or food processor.
Drain the cauliflower through a fine sieve set over a bowl to collect the liquid.
Transfer the cauliflower and 60ml of the cooking liquid to the blender.
Add the tofu, pepper and cheese, if using, and blend until very smooth. Season to taste with salt.
To make the bolognese, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large deep frying pan or shallow saucepan over high heat; if using minced lamb, there is no need to add any oil. Cook the minced meat for 3 minutes, or until browned. Transfer to a bowl, then drain off and discard any excess liquid.
Reduce the heat to medium–high and heat the remaining oil in the pan.
Add the anchovies, if using. Add the mushrooms, celery and carrot and cook for 3–5 minutes, stirring regularly, until starting to soften.
Return the meat to the pan, then stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and passata. Add the dried lentils, along with the stock.
Cover with a lid and bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 1 hour, or until the mixture has thickened, the meat has broken down and the vegetables are very tender.
Remove the lid. (If using tinned lentils, stir them in now.) Cook, uncovered, for a further 5 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened. Use as required.
Preheat the grill to high. Line a large baking tray with foil, drizzle with oil, then arrange half the aubergine slices on the baking tray, in a single layer. Drizzle the aubergine with oil and season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Grill for 10 minutes, or until golden and tender. Remove and set aside, then repeat with the remaining aubergine.
Meanwhile, put the bolognese sauce in a saucepan. Stir in the cinnamon and the worcestershire sauce, if using, and gently warm through. Keep warm over medium–low heat.
Line the base of a greased 2–2.5 litre baking dish with half the aubergine. Stir the peas into the bolognese mixture, then transfer to the baking dish, evenly spreading out the mixture. Cover with the remaining aubergine slices, then the white sauce. Sprinkle the cheese over, if using.
Cook under the grill for 10 minutes, or until lightly golden on top. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes, then serve with rocket, if desired.
- If using dried lentils, take care not to season the bolognese with salt until after they are completely cooked, otherwise they will toughen up and will not soften.
- If you’re not fond of aubergine, you could use 2 large potatoes instead. Cut them into slices 3mm thick and grill in the same way as the aubergine, but for only 6 minutes, or until tender.
- For a gluten-free moussaka, omit the worcestershire sauce.
- For a dairy-free meal, when making the white sauce, use olive oil instead of butter and omit the cheese, leaving it out of the moussaka as well.
From 3 Veg and Meat: Flip The Balance On Your Plate by Olivia Andrews (£17.99, Murdoch Books), out now
Photography: Mowie Kay; Dan Jones; Phu Tang
Christobel Hastings is a London-based journalist covering pop culture, feminism, LGBTQ and lore.