Whilst taking the photos for this post, I pondered as I often do about how a Greek culinary purist might view my bastardisation of a traditional Greek dish. Especially when I use an ingredient like soy-based vegetable protein, sometimes even more unattractively labelled as "textured vegetable protein" or TVP, as a meat replacement.
But I am a vegetarian, and I love Greek food, so the only way for me to enjoy traditionally meat-based Greek dishes is to either remove the meat component or replace it with something else.
Many Greek dishes, especially those that use minced meat, are bursting with flavours that come not from the meat but from spices, herbs, nuts and vegetables. Cinnamon, tomatoes, oregano, honey, mint, almonds, olives, dill, garlic, walnuts – these are the flavours that make Greek food Greek. The meat is often just there to bulk things up a bit. (Sometimes cinnamon is in fact used to disguise the taste of the meat!)
For vegetarians the same bulking effect can be achieved with any number of substitutes including mushrooms, kidney beans, lentils, tofu, eggs or TVP.
Now, I know that not everyone is a fan of TVP. Many vegetarians simply aren't interested in recreating a meat-eating experience and don't see the need to use this product when there are so many other wonderful ingredients that will do the job just fine. But for those that are part-time lovers of vegetarian food, or those that are transitioning towards vegetarianism, TVP can make things a lot easier and it doesn't taste too bad either.
I personally prefer using mushrooms as a substitute in Greek dishes that call for minced meat, and I have a very hearty mushroom moussaka recipe to post soon, but today I would like to introduce you to moussaka with vegetable protein.
Vegetarian Moussaka (with vegetable protein)
- 2 onions, finely sliced
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 carrots, grated
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 x 400g cans chopped peeled tomatoes
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon honey
- 2 x 400g cans of TVP*, drained and rinsed
- 4 potatoes, sliced to 1cm thick
- 2 eggplants, sliced to 1cm thick
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 litre milk
- 80g butter
- 80g plain flour
- 80g sharp cheese**
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
* TVP is not easy to find in the stores. If you can't find it (or you just can't bring yourself to eat TVP) you can use lightly fried mushrooms, cooked kidney beans or cooked lentils. The TVP product I buy is unfortunately the only one I can get my hands on these days. It comes in a can and is mixed with a claggy jelly that they call "gravy" but I prefer to rinse this out. I just empty the can into a strainer and rinse under cold running water for a minute or so while separating with a fork. There's also a non-soy product derived from a type of fungus which tastes a bit better than canned TVP but doesn't agree with some people's digestive systems, including my own!
** Kefalograviera (a sharp Greek cheese) is traditionally used however it contains animal rennet. I prefer to use a non-animal rennet cheese. Check the label.
- Fry the onions in olive oil on low heat until caramelised. Takes about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. I always fry onions this way. It's worth the wait for that sweet, mellow flavour.
- Lay the potato and eggplant slices on a greased baking tray, spray liberally with oil and grill for 5 to 10 minutes each side, until golden. The eggplant may go quite dark but this intensifies the flavour so it's a good thing!
- Once onions have caramelised, turn the heat up to medium, add grated carrot and garlic and fry for a few more minutes, adding a bit more oil if it's looking a bit dry.
- Add tomatoes, cinnamon, tomato paste, oregano, honey and TVP to the onion mixture, stir well and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and allow to simmer, uncovered, for around 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Add salt and pepper to taste. I know an hour is a long time but the sauce becomes so rich and full-flavoured this way. A lesser cooking time will result in a watery sauce, and a sad and sloppy moussaka.
- While the sauce is cooking, make the bechamel sauce (see below). Cover and set aside.
- Lay out the potatoes and eggplant evenly over the bottom of a greased, medium-sized baking dish (about 25 x 35 cm). Potatoes first, then the eggplant.
- Once the tomato sauce is cooked, pour over potatoes and eggplant and spread evenly.
- Lastly, cover the tomato sauce with bechamel sauce and bake in a moderate oven (180 degrees celsius) for around 45 minutes, or until top is golden brown (yeah I know, mine's beyond golden brown but the seal's broken on my oven at the moment so I turned it up to 200 to compensate and just walked away – probably shouldn't have done that).
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the flour and mix well, stirring quickly.
- Cook while stirring for around 1 minute until the mixture is beginning to froth a little, then remove from heat.
- Add around a quarter of a cup of milk, stirring quickly to incorporate. The mixture will thicken and lumpify a little but trust me, it will smooth out. Immediately add a little more milk, stirring quickly and constantly, ensuring the mixture is combined properly before adding more milk. Keep adding milk and stirring until all the milk is incorporated.
- Put the saucepan back on medium heat, stirring constantly until it thickens. Takes around 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Using a whisk, quickly stir in the cheese and beaten egg. Cover until ready to use.
Cut the moussaka into portions and serve with plenty of grated cheese and a side salad.
P.S. I've linked this post with Veggie Mama's fantastic blog for Meatless Monday.