By Stephanie K.
Fall is in the air. I forgot how much earlier summer ends in Boston than in Washington, D.C., where the swamp-like humidity and heat persists through October. In Boston and greater New England, the signs of fall begin well before Labor Day. The corners of the leaves start to crisp and turn golden. The evening breeze has a chilly edge you barely notice at first, and the scent of wood-burning smoke wafts so subtly you wonder if it’s actually there. The days get shorter, the air gets colder, and the desire for warm, hearty suppers heats up.
I’ve been ready for fall since, oh, about the 4th of July. It’s my favorite season — I yearn all year for the vibrant burst of colors across the landscape, abundance of root vegetables overflowing farmer’s market stalls, and a good excuse to sip a mug of hot, mulled cider. Rich and savory flavors are another favorite aspect of fall, when I tend to use cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice quite liberally. And the casseroles – oh, how I love casseroles.
Growing up (and while I was still eating meat), one of my favorite fall dishes was classic Greek Moussaka. My mom would bake slices of eggplant and layer it in a casserole dish with minced beef, veal, and pork simmered in a tomato and wine sauce. Some use lamb in the minced meat mixture – but my mom loves her “Meatloaf Mix,” as she calls it. After the eggplant and meat are layered like a lasagna, the dish is topped with béchamel sauce and baked golden brown. A thick slice is creamy, flavorful, fall perfection, and I say “fall” perfection for two reasons. 1. The nutmeg. While only a scant amount is included in the béchamel sauce, it really comes through with each bite and conjurs images of Thanksgiving, pumpkins, and a bowl of Autumn Harvest potpourri. 2. The texture and weight. This isn’t a dish that will leave you hungry. It is quite dense and borderline heavy (thank goodness we never added golden potatoes to the layers of eggplant), but oh, so satisfying. Afterwards, you are warm and full – which is not how you want to feel after eating a meal in the summer. But fall? Yes.
I was not aware that other versions of moussaka existed until flipping through the July/August version of Clean Eating Magazine. Chef Philippe Massoud, co-owner of New York City’s ilili Restaurant, shared a recipe for meatless Lebanese-style moussaka that is described as “a lighter dish that still has big flavor.” Naturally intrigued, I made it for dinner that night – and about six times since. It has become a go-to meal in my house that is greeted by my husband with fanfare each time.
While Lebanese moussaka has some of the core elements of classic Greek moussaka – eggplant, tomato sauce, and spices – it is very different from its Greek counterpart. Instead of a rich, creamy lasagna, Lebanese moussaka is more of a velvety, eggplant stew. It is hearty and filling without being heavy (let’s be honest, fabulous though Greek moussaka is, it will sit in your gut afterward like a lead sinker). The first time the dish was baking in the oven, I cracked open the lid and the smell of heaven (aka cinnamon and allspice) immediately filled the oven. My fall-loving heart soared.
I did not change much from the original recipe by Chef Massoud. Since the serving size wasn’t really enough for my husband to take leftovers to work, I doubled the quantity and tweaked the ratios. In place of water, I used vegetable broth for added flavor as the tomatoes, onions, garlic, and spices simmered. Speaking of simmer, I slowly simmered this stew base for much longer than Chef Massoud indicated, allowing the liquid to reduce by half so the stew was much thicker. Eat straight with a spoon thicker. It is just that good.