Vegetable moussaka with harissa

October 15, 2009 § 1 Comment

Yesterday was my sister’s 26th birthday. We started off the day by surprising her in her bed at 7AM with a coffee cake and a big box of chocolates, and while she was at work I planned out a birthday dinner for her. I wanted to make something with Middle Eastern influences, but really fresh flavours, so eventually settled on the idea of a vegetable moussaka. The last time I made moussaka for the family it felt like there was something missing from the tomato base, which made it a somewhat plain dish – tasty but not incredibly interesting. This time, I decided to use harissa to flavour the tomato sauce, which provided it with a much-needed kick that completely transformed the dish.

Moussaka comes in several different forms, as varying versions of the dish are made across the Middle East. The Greek dish is often layered with potato, aubergine (or courgette), lamb mince and a tomato sauce that includes kidney beans. However, Arab versions of the dish usually don’t layer the vegetables, giving the dish more of a stew-like appearance and taste. The Greek version of moussaka is the one I went with, layering aubergines, potatoes, cheese and tomato sauce to create a more substantial dish that kept together more easily when serving.

Harissa on the other hand, is used in a wide range of Middle Eastern dishes, from Tunisian to Moroccan dishes, but also in North African cuisine. It’s basically a chilli paste flavoured with various spices to create a hot condiment or ingredient for a wide range of recipes. The chilli peppers are usually smoked and combined with garlic to create the base for harissa, after which a combination of spices or peppers, tomatoes, even rose petals are added. I used rose harissa (from the world foods section of Sainsburys) which worked brilliantly with the flavours in this dish to combine Greek influences with Moroccan and Turkish tastes.

Vegetables and harissa

Making moussaka is fairly easy once you’ve done it a couple of times, but there are a number of stages which means you need a whole kitchen to yourself to get it done. The moussaka is made in two parts: filling and base.

For the filling you’ll need:

  • 2 large potatoes, peeled
  • 5 tbsp olive oil (or soya oil)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 x 400g cans chopped tomatoes
  • 2-4 tsp harissa paste
  • 1 tsp dried or fresh oregano
  • a pinch of ground cinnamon
  • a pinch of sugar
  • 2 tbsp tomato purée
  • 1 x 400g can of red kidney beans (drain these and rinse gently under a cold tap)
  • 2 aubergines, sliced
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Start off by boiling the potatoes until they are tender, then drain them and slice into 5mm pieces. Separately, in a heavy based saucepan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil and fry the onion and garlic gently until softened (which is usually around 5 minutes).

Frying onion and garlic

Add the tomatoes, harissa paste, oregano, cinnamon, sugar and tomato purée. Then bring the tomato sauce to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat some of the remaining oil in a large frying pan and fry the aubergine slices in batches until just soft and golden-brown on both sides. Add more oil as you go along because as you’ll notice, aubergine really soaks up oil quickly.

Tomato sauce and fryinng aubergines

Your aubergine slices should be coming along nicely while you simmer the sauce. Set the fried slices aside on kitchen paper as you fry each batch in a single layer.

Fried aubergine slices

Going back to your tomato sauce, once your 10 minutes are up, remove the cover and add the kidney beans, seasoning and parsley. Then re-cover and simmer for a further 20 minutes.

Adding kidney beans and frying aubergine

Now you can preheat your oven to 190°C and get started on making your topping. Traditionally, moussaka has a yoghurt-based topping or cheese sauce topping that has eggs whipped into it, but as Diwali started from the next day (as in today) I decided to substitute the usual topping (which I didn’t really find appealing anyway) with a basic cheese sauce, for which you’ll need:

  • 20g butter
  • 20g flour
  • 400ml milk (full-fat is the best to use for this sauce)
  • 100g cheddar cheese, grated plus extra for sprinkling and middle layers (can be up to around 250g altogether)
  • 20g parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • ½ tsp mustard

Cheddar and Parmesan cheese

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over a gentle heat, adding the flour gradually and stirring well for 2 minutes to avoid lumps. Then pour the milk in gradually, beating well with a wooden spoon to a make a smooth, thin sauce. Simmer and stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Then add the mustard, stir well, the gradually add cheese to taste, stirring until fully melted. Add a little grated Parmesan (around 5-10g) to the mixture and stir well again. At this point, a pinch of nutmeg, salt and freshly ground pepper and a pinch of parsley will really brighten up the cheese sauce and bring out some delicious flavours.

Cheese sauce

Now to assemble the dish. In a large 9 inch square dish (lasagne dish will be suitable), spoon a layer of the tomato mixture, then arrange aubergine slices in a single layer, then a layer of grated cheese, topped with potato slices. Repeat and continue the layering, finishing with a layer of the aubergine slices. Pour over the topping and sprinkle with the remaining cheddar cheese, then grating the remaining Parmesan over the dish. Transfer the dish to the oven and bake for approximately an hour, or until bubbling and golden-brown on top. Remove from the oven and stand for 10 minutes before eating.

You can serve the dish with an olive, feta cheese and tomato salad if you want. Dress the salad with a good glug of extra virgin olive oil, a splash of lemon juice, freshly ground black pepper and some chopped mint. And there you have it! A delicious Middle Eastern moussaka with delicious harissa, which is not too spicy, but not too plain either. This dish is perfectly complemented by a New Zealand 2008 Sauvignon Blanc.

Moussaka

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