A vegetarian in the house

Having written a book about vegetarian cuisine, as well as spent years cooking vegetarian dishes, I’m no stranger to the logistical issues. Unless you’re content to base your vegetarian diet on soy burgers (not recommended at all), you’re going to be doing some cooking. The problem is, this type of cooking is frequently time-consuming and complicated.

I recently hosted a vegetarian guest, and on each night ended up preparing a vegetarian dish for dinner. I either made just one version for everyone, or made two versions, one with meat. We had:

  • Potato gratin. Twice. One version was more successful than the other
  • Moussaka: one pan with the traditional lamb; one without
  • Enchilada casserole
  • Risotta
  • Cheese fondue

This was over the holidays, so there was ample time for cooking, not that everyone wants to devote 4 or 5 hours of the day to preparing a complex casserole, even if they do have the time. It’s not something the average person (particularly busy parents) wants to deal with every single day, if there is a vegetarian in the home. Jobs, commuting, car pools and family commitments would make that impossible.

Take the moussaka which was probably the most complicated and time-consuming of these recipes. Moussaka is a traditional Greek dish, a variation on shepherd’s pie. Moussaka has more herbal/spicy seasonings, and is topped with a béchamel sauce and cheese. The traditional version is made with lamb, but it turned out to be pretty simple to make a vegetarian version.

My preference for centerpiece casseroles like this is that they contain meaningful protein. This is especially important for vegetarian casseroles, and especially for feeding growing children. A lot of times, vegetarian recipes for main dishes are just loaded with vegetables and maybe some grains, and so are high carb and very filling, but low protein. If you’re avoiding meat, you’re cutting a significant protein source from your diet, so you need to make up for that somehow. For vegetarian casseroles, eggs, cheese and milk, as well as legumes and nuts are the go-to protein sources. Moussaka is made with milk, cheese and egg, so even without lamb, there’s still plenty of protein.

Vegetarian Moussaka

This is my variation on vegetarian moussaka. There are plenty of other ideas on the internet, but basically you make traditional moussaka and leave out the lamb. The casserole layer that includes lamb needs something else to fill out the volume, so my suggestion is garbanzo beans. They’re also high protein, so it’s a win-win solution.

Moussaka is made with eggplant, but some recipes also include potatoes. That’s up to you. If you’ve got some pre-cooked potatoes around, you can add some thin slices to the eggplant layers. This also makes it a heartier dish, good for hungry teens.


  • 2 eggplants
  • olive oil as needed (you may need a lot)
  • 1 15-oz can garbanzo beans, drained
  • 1 large onion
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 can tomato paste
  • 1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup red or dry white wine
  • 1/4 tsp cinnamon
  • 3 cups milk OR 2 cups milk and 1 cup ricotta
  • 4 TB butter
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan or crumbled feta cheese
  1. Slice the eggplants into 1/2 inch slices. Sprinkle both sides with salt and set on paper towels to drain off some liquid, for at least 30 minutes or more.
  2. Rinse the slices briefly and pat dry on paper towels.
  3. Heat olive oil in a skillet or griddle and sauté eggplant in a single layer until each slice is browned on both sides and cooked (limp). Set aside on paper towels to absorb any extra oil.

Make the tomato layer

  1. Chop the onion and sauté in olive oil in a saucepan. Add the oregano.
  2. When the onions are translucent, add the chopped garlic and cook briefly.
  3. Add the tomato paste and stir thoroughly to combine with the onions
  4. Add the wine and stir to mix with the tomato paste.
  5. Add the crushed tomatoes and cinnamon.
  6. While the sauce is heating, chop the garbanzo beans briefly in a food processor. Briefly is key, you do not want them pureed. Add chopped garbanzos to the sauce.
  7. Add salt and pepper to taste and set aside.

Make the béchamel (white) sauce

  1. Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Stir in the flour. Stir and heat over moderate heat, do not brown.
  2. When the flour mixture is bubbly, start adding milk. Stir thoroughly after each small addition to avoid creating lumps. When the mix bubbles again, add more milk and stir. Keep adding milk until it’s all used.
  3. Add the nutmeg. Remove from heat and whisk in the egg yolks.
  4. If using ricotta, whisk it in completely.
  5. Stir in the cheese and salt to taste.

Put it together

  1. Grease a 2 quart casserole dish. Heat oven to 350º.
  2. Divide the eggplant slices into 2 piles. Layer one pile around the bottom of the casserole dish. If using potato slices, layer those over the eggplant
  3. Pour the tomato mixture over the eggplant.
  4. Layer the rest of the eggplant slices on top of the tomato mixture.
  5. Pour the white sauce over the top and spread evenly.
  6. Bake for 45-60 minutes until the top is set (not liquid or runny) and the casserole is heated through. The time will depend on the size of your baking dish and your oven temperature.
  7. After it’s done, let the moussaka sit for about 15 minutes before serving.
  8. Serve with a tossed green salad and perhaps some crusty bread.


As I said, you can find plenty of variations on this dish on the internet. Some recipes have additional ingredients for the tomato sauce, such as lemon zest or parsley. Another option is sliced sautéed mushrooms.

Lentils are frequently suggested to replace the lamb. If you do use lentils, I’d suggest black Beluga lentils or French green rather than the brown ones sold in grocery stores. These varieties hold their shape better, and so won’t make the tomato sauce layer into a mushy mass. They do take longer to cook from scratch, so keep that in mind. You can always cook those ahead and refrigerate until you put the dish together.

Making this dish probably took up an entire afternoon, what with sautéing the eggplant (time consuming!) and making the sauces. It’s a delicious and filling dish, so if you like eggplant and Mediterranean flavors, I highly recommend it. Just leave yourself plenty of time.

Copyright: All content © 2020 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.