by Ben Choi
As we settle into the long, cold, dark days that come with the final slog through winter, we — your pals from The Awl and The Hairpin — will be bringing you some of our favorite casserole recipes (and crockery recommendations). But these won’t be just any old casseroles! No, no, that won’t do at all. These are fancy casseroles — or at least, not-gross ones.
Mama didn’t make casseroles. Because I grew up on (more or less) traditional Korean food, I’m not a native speaker when it comes to American culinary classics. Tamale pie and tuna casserole are ethnic foods to me. I was 19 when I first tasted mac ’n’ cheese, and I still think of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup as, well, soup. Since all the casseroles I’ve had were exotic dishes discovered in adulthood, they evoke in me technical curiosity rather than nostalgia. My casserole fairy godmothers are Alice Waters and Marcella Hazan, not Betty Crocker. As a result, I gravitate towards sophisticated, labor-intensive, tutti-foodie examples of the art. I am not a snob; I’m a foreigner.
I’m also a pretty serious carnivore. So when I was served an excellent lentil moussaka at a wedding a couple of years back, it was a game changer. I became obsessed with developing a satisfying, highbrow vegetarian potluck pick. This casserole incorporates the crowd-pleasing heartiness of lentils with the synergistic snob appeal of a deconstructed ratatouille like Thomas Keller’s. I was pretty spare with seasonings in this version, so feel free to embellish with your favorite herb or spice. This recipe is time-consuming; it might take you about three hours or more, so you might want to save it for the weekend. But on the plus side, it’s kind of a fun craft activity that can be split up and delegated to friends and family while watching The Godfather Parts I and II. It’s also a pretty good basic template for all kinds of assembled casseroles, like the seasonal vegetable medleys and gratins I’m sure your mama used to make.
Veggie Moussaka With Puy Lentils
1 large eggplant
2 or 3 medium zucchini
2 medium red peppers
1 large onion, 1/8-inch dice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 bunch of Tuscan kale
8 oz. Puy Lentils (the French kind that are speckled green and brown)
3 small carrots, 1/8-inch dice
2 stalks of celery, 1/8-inch dice
4 oz. feta cheese
1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes
a large pinch of oregano
3 bay leaves
5 or 6 basil leaves
1 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. VSOP brandy or cognac
1 tbsp. goat cheese
1 1/4 cup of milk
2 tbsp. flour
2 tbsp. butter
1/4 tsp. grated nutmeg
1 beaten egg
1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
1 quart water, and additional 1/4 cup
A lot of knife work to begin with. If you like, use a German knife and pretend you’re Angela Merkel bringing austerity to the Greeks. What you’re aiming for is big eggplant coins to line the bottom and top veggie layers and Trident gum-size pieces of zucchini and pepper, bite-sized but not so small as to be hard to flip with tongs.
Cut off the ends of the eggplant and use a peeler lengthwise to remove 3/4-inch strips in a zebra pattern. Slice crosswise into 1/8-inch rounds. This will take a very sharp knife or a mandoline. Take ends off zucchini and slice in half lengthwise. Now slice each of the halves lengthwise, into 1/8-inch thick planks, and slice the planks crosswise into three equal parts. You’ll end up with little planks about 1 3/4” long and 1/4” to 1/2” wide. Remove ribs from kale. Slice crosswise into ribbons.
Dice onions and separate into two roughly equal piles. Dice carrots and celery. Mince garlic. You should have a really full cutting board now.
Heat a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over high heat about a 3 tbsp. olive oil until glistening. In batches pan-fry the eggplant, zucchini and peppers, replenishing oil with each batch. Set completed batches on paper towels, season with salt an pepper. You want the eggplants to be rather soft and the zucchini and peppers on the firm side. Without adding any additional oil saute the kale for about a minute in residual oil. Shut off heat and add 1/4 cup of water to skillet and steam kale in resulting tumult. The water should almost entirely evaporate.
Now for the lentils. Heat 2 tsp. olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onions, carrots and celery, along with 2 bay leaves. Soften for about 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add lentils and saute with vegetables for about a minute, stirring. Stir in quart of water and bring to boil, partially covering saucepan with lid. Once a light boil is achieved, reduce heat to medium-low and simmer partially covered for about 15 minutes. You want the lentils al dente at this point, soft on the tooth but not a hint of mushiness. Turn off heat and let sit covered for at least a half-hour. Then salt and pepper to taste.
The tomato sauce that binds this dish should wind up looking about the same color as Chef Boyardee’s. In a saute pan over medium heat, add 1 tbsp. olive oil and the remaining onion. Saute for 5 minutes. Now add the garlic, bay leaf and the pinch of dried oregano stir and saute for about a minute. Add the can of crushed tomatoes, vinegar and basil leaves. Bring to a simmer.
Now remove the saucepan from the heat and run the hot mixture through a fine strainer, into a large bowl. Squeeze the pulp against the strainer with a spatula until mostly dry. Now scrape the puree along the outside of the strainer into the bowl. Dissolve the goat cheese into the still-hot sauce until you achieve a nice orangey hue. Blend in the brandy or cognac and 1 tsp. olive oil. Salt and pepper to taste.
We’re almost finished. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. It’s time to assemble.
Layer bottom of Pyrex lasagna dish with half of the eggplant. Drizzle half the Boyardee sauce over the eggplant and spread evenly with a spatula. Arrange the zucchini and pepper in an evenly spread array. Drizzle with remaining sauce. Now strew the kale over that and add lentils with a slotted spoon and spread evenly. Pinch off blueberry-sized chunks of goat cheese over lentils and top off with remaining eggplant. Cover with foil and place into the hot oven. Set your timer to 25 minutes, and get to work on your egg and bechamel topping.
Over medium heat in a small saucepan begin melting butter. When butter is halfway melted, add flour and milk. Bring the mixture up to just below a boil, whisking constantly. The bechamel should be quite thick at this point, easily coating the back of a spoon. Turn off the heat and continue whisking for 30 seconds until even thicker. Remove from heat and blend in nutmeg. Let cool for 5 minutes and then whisk in beaten egg.
Finally, kneel in front of your oven, slide out the rack, remove foil and pour the white stuff on top and spread out with spatula. Sprinkle with parmesan, and continue baking for 30 additional minutes. Done. Finito!
You know what, fuck the European Union! I don’t think the Greeks are lazy at all.
This site’s correspondent on condiments, Ben Choi lives in the SF Bay Area with his wife Erica and dog Spock. He’s considering a raw food diet.