Communion : Beloved Moussaka ~ and it’s vegan!

By Sophia Young – Kitchen Manager at Embercombe

My kids and I have a penchant for moussaka. Maybe we might say, a fixation. Most especially myself and my son. It’s as if cosmic medicine for our tummies, souls and quite possibly, our cellular DNA. I would like to proffer the passion began in the heat of sweet Mediterranean kitchens. But it didn’t. It was ignited instead in the heart of Hackney, freshly postpartum and with one such beautiful waitress, Esna Su.

A hop and a skip down the canal from home, weekly she would serve us;
o Vegetarian moussaka
o Chips, not rice
o One bowl of hummous
o And some olives, please

And, with lunch served on the table and a swift swoop, she would scoop my boy up into her arms and take him over to snuggle with her fellow colleagues whilst, this sleepy new-born mama encountered a glorious chance to experience the rare fourth-trimester phenomena of; TWO… FREE…. HANDS!!!

As a small family finding their feet, without relatives to step in and hold the bubba, Esna and her team started to form part of my parenting village. This weekend ritual, of which they soon learned the desired menu of choice, of a mama being fed, formed precious moments infused with sweet kindness in those early days. And such delicious opportunity to be in receipt of, I like to think, seeped into my breast milk so, as the little pup supped, the melding of flavours of aubergine, courgettes and peppers, inspired within him, a deep-hearted sense of nourishment within the fondest folds of this simple, treasured communion. Food, family, friendship. Now, with our favourite local Turkish restaurant here in Devon currently closed during lockdown, and without the familiar sharing of unexpected gifts of pomegranate tabbouleh, baklava or other fair delights arriving with our meal, I have felt drawn this last month, to steep roasting trays with multitudes of sliced spuds and our favourite veg, to call in the warm smiles, loving eyes and culture of care from our European friends and cook up this heavenly marriage of many fine layers!

The inspiration ~

x 3 large potatoes
x 2 medium aubergines
x 3 courgettes
x 3 Ramiro peppers
x 2 red onions
x 2 handfuls of cherry tomatoes
x 2 bulbs of garlic
x 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
x 2 tubs of Oatly cream
x2 tablespoons of Engevita flakes
x1 large teaspoon of honey mustard

The magic ~

The key ingredient for this recipe is TIME so it comes with invitation to tune into your most best radio station, turn on your audio book or place vinyl on the decks and romance the next hour or so with winding down and drawing inwards. If you have mandolin or food processor, you might decide to utilise these. Or you may simply sharpen your knife and sink into the mediation of…. slicing this bounty of vegetables. Begin by placing the oven on 200 and setting aside three roasting tins. You may choose to use just one however, from my experience for this dish, each of these vegetables seems to grow in their individual flavour, when left to slowly roast alone. I add generous amounts of naked garlic bulbs to the courgettes particularly and salt is essential for both these and the aubergines. All three trays will take approx. 30-45 mins and remember to turn each half-way through cooking.

Whilst these are in the oven, finely dice the red onions and fry until silky soft. Add minced garlic followed by the cherry tomatoes, cut into quarters. When melded, pour in the tinned tomatoes and cook down. Blitz when ready. Now, there’s a moment in this union that may arrive as a challenge. It consists of three trays a-roasting, a pan of tomatoes and onions bubbling on the stove, three large spuds saying, SLICE ME! and the need to make a vegan-friendly béchamel of sorts sauce. And, without wishing the heat of the kitchen to cause overwhelm (coz at this point it can), you might take a moment to pause a wee while and pour a glass of red, make a cuppa or possibly plonk yourself down on the sofa.

Once ready for more culinary play, prepare the spuds and steam for around 8-10 minutes, until al- dente. In a separate pan, pour the cream and combine with Engevita flakes, salt, pepper, mustard and, if you prefer a thicker béchamel, perhaps a spoonful of cornflour. And, with all four elements now prepared, the construction can commence. Huzzah! You will need to find a dish that has depth. Terracotta are wonderful as they assist alchemising a wealth in flavour and taste however, a loaf tin could work equally as well. Start by placing at your base, a smudge of the tomato sauce then a layer of potato slices. Build with aubergines and more sauce, followed by potatoes again then courgettes, peppers and a third administering of sauce. Depending on quantity and size of dish, you may be able to repeat these layers and, when finished, complete this labour of love, topping the stack with your béchamel sauce. Cook for approx. 45-60 minutes and serve with watercress leaves, toasted pumpkin seeds and a balsamic dressing. And very possibly, another glass of Merlot!

Whilst Esna was waitressing, she lived in Kew working as a nanny AND studied jewellery at Central St Martins. She has since graduated and now produces beautiful woven sculptures that explore her cultural and political heritage ~