When my fiancé and I visited the magical island of Santorini about this time last summer, one of our most memorable meals on the island was at Nectar & Ambrosia Restaurant, where we enjoyed a rich Greek Moussaka. A traditional Greek Moussaka is made by layering eggplant with a spiced meat filling and topping it with a creamy, baked béchamel sauce. It is a rich and satisfying dish usually reserved for special Sunday night meals or celebration dinners. Our meal and experience at Nectar & Ambrosia, an exclusive spot with only 14 tables on the terrace and 8 tables inside,was an experience we will not soon forget.
With no addresses on the island of Santorini, I was given strict insturctions by the maître d’ to “follow the path to the Oia sunset” to find the restaurant on the night of our reservation. Okkkk, I thought. Turns out finding Nectar & Ambrosia was as easy as that. We had a coveted table on the terrace (yes, like a true New Yorker I called weeks in advance), where we enjoyed the changing colors of the night sky against the rest of the island and the caldera (when you go to Santorini you will find yourself saying the world “caldera” every hour or so). Following our meal of rich Greek Moussaka, we strolled further down the path, where we joined what seemed like hundreds of others who congregated to watch the sunset. It seemed the whole island gathered at the tip of Oia for this “event.” We remarked it looked like a concert was about a start, and the star was the sun. When the sun finally set, there was a haunting moment of silence. They say it’s the best in the world, and we believe it.Santorini Moussaka at Nectar & Ambrosia, Oia, Santorni
Back home and back to reality, I decided to set out to make a healthy version of this memorable dish. Now, my vegetarian version of Moussaka is by no means a replacement for the traditional version, but I guarantee you will love it. This recipe uses bulgur in place of meat and a mixture of Greek yogurt and egg in place of béchamel, but still has layers of roasted eggplant and a sweet tomato sauce full of spices. This way, you can enjoy Moussaka more often and maybe save the traditional one for your next trip to Greece…Aaron & I at Nectar & Ambrosia, Oia, Santorini
Recipe adapted from MARTHA ROSE SHULMAN
For the tomato sauce:
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in purée
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
For the gratin:
1 large eggplant
1 cup coarse bulgur
Extra virgin olive oil (1 to 2 tablespoons)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
Salt, pepper and paprika to taste
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until onion is tender, about 5 minutes, and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about a minute, and add the tomatoes, salt to taste, pepper, sugar, cinnamon, paprika and allspice. Turn the heat up to medium-high and cook until the tomatoes are bubbling. Stir together, turn the heat back to medium-low, partly cover and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down and the sauce is thick and fragrant, 25 to 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from the heat. If your sauce is chunky, either put it through a food mill or pulse it in a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Set aside.
2. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the eggplant in lengthwise slices. Sprinkle slices with salt and let sit for 15 to 30 minutes (this step is optional). Meanwhile, cook the bulgur. Bring 2 cups water with salt to taste to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the bulgur, and when the water comes back to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes, until all of the water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat, place a clean dish towel over the pan and cover with the lid. Let the bulgur sit while you roast the eggplant.
3. Rinse the eggplant slices and pat dry. Line baking sheets with foil and brush the foil with olive oil. Lay the eggplant slices on the foil, brush lightly with oil and place in the hot oven. Roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until eggplant is beginning to brown, switching the baking sheets halfway through. Remove from the oven and fold the aluminum up over the eggplant slices so that they continue to steam and soften in the foil envelope as they cool completely. They should be thoroughly tender by the time they cool. Turn the oven down to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Oil a 3-quart baking dish. Spread a small amount of tomato sauce on the bottom, and spoon in half of the bulgur in an even layer. Cover the bulgur with eggplant slices and spread about half the remaining tomato sauce over the eggplant. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of Parmesan over the tomato sauce. Repeat the layers, but don’t sprinkle on another 2 tablespoons of Parmesan. If you have extra eggplant slices, make a top layer of them, on top of the tomato sauce.
5. Beat together the eggs, yogurt and 2 tablespoons of the remaining Parmesan. Season with salt, pepper and paprika. Spoon over the top in an even layer and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Place in the oven and bake 30 to 40 minutes, until golden. Remove from the heat and let sit for 10 minutes or longer before serving.
Advance preparation: All of the elements of this casserole will keep for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator, as will the assembled casserole, without the egg-yogurt topping. Make the topping right before baking. The casserole can be baked ahead and reheated in a low oven.