Lettuce Entertain You

Four lavish meals prove that vegetarian cuisine can be elegant.

October 1978By Comments

A Different Onion Soup
Spinach Timbale
Pears Poached in Red Wine

Monday evening, 8 o’Clock. The table is set for eight. Onion soup with a tomatoey broth simmers on the stove. A spinach timbale cools in its mold, while crepes filled with almond cheese warm in the oven. A golden loaf of homemade bread welcomes guests who have followed the aromas down the path to my house. It is opening night for my Get Down on the Food Chain Dinners, a series of four lavish vegetarian meals I had planned for friends to prove once and for all that vegetarian cuisine can be elegant.

Tonight the hors d’oeuvres are simple: mixed-grains bread, herb butter, and a platter of raw vegetables with homemade mayonnaise. I serve kir—white wine with a spot of crème de cassis—as an aperitif. As the wine glasses begin to empty, I ladle out steaming onion soup. A guest puts a generous handful of Gruyère into each bowl and I spoon the soup over it. We uncork more white wine and sit down to eat.

We are eating what I call A Different Onion Soup. Unlike French onion soup, the stock is made with two-thirds vegetable broth, one-third tomato juice. It took me minutes to prepare the vegetables for the stock, and as it gently simmered I could fill the crepes, wash lettuce, make a sauce—no endless standing over a soup pot skimming off fat. Tarragon and the abundance of sliced yellow onions give the soup a fragrant bouquet, made richer now by the melted cheese. Had I not served bread as an hors d’oeuvre I would have floated the Gruyère on croutons, but I don’t want to fill up my guests. There is a fine line in good eating between satisfaction and surfeit. Vegetarian meals are often too heavy, as if to apologize for the absence of meat.

Between courses I sauce the crepes, then unmold the spinach timbale from its bundt pan and garnish this flowery ring with tomato sauce and parsley. A timbale is a custard of vegetables, meat, or fish. It is as dramatic as a soufflé but not nearly so temperamental; it doesn’t fall and doesn’t have to be served immediately.

I’ve filled the whole wheat crepes with a mixture of ricotta cheese, ground almonds, eggs, yogurt, and parmesan cheese, then seasoned them with nutmeg, a spice that can turn something good into something extraordinary. Over the crepes goes a savory white wine sauce.

A mixed green salad tossed with a vinaigrette dressing accompanies the crepes and timbale. It includes tender Boston and red tip lettuce, sliced fresh mushrooms, green onions, bell peppers, cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, and fresh herbs.

Dessert doesn’t follow too quickly. While my guests rest and digest, I start the coffee, whip some cream, and put the last touches on the pears poached in red wine with crème de cassis, one of the simplest and most pleasing of finales.

Garlic Soup
Black Bean Enchiladas
Oranges Grand Marnier

The smells wafting from the kitchen for my second dinner are those of black bean enchiladas and a redolent garlic soup. Guests are bringing Mexican beer, and my table is set with pottery from Michoacán. When the first person arrives I heat some Chablis in a chafing dish and start tonight’s hors d’oeuvre: a cheese fondue, which I will serve with crisp raw vegetables and sliced apples, rather than bread. Gruyère begins to melt in the wine, then to bubble. On the vegetable platter are three steamed artichokes surrounded by zucchini and cucumber spears, small curled carrot sticks, and radishes. Sliced pippin apples (tossed with lemon juice to prevent discoloration) are in a bowl. We drink beer and dip artichoke leaves into the fondue, which strings like taffy from the chafer.

I then tend to the soup. Whole wheat shells of macaroni go into the garlic broth. A slice of bread with a generous handful of Gruyère cheese goes into each bowl. When the macaroni shells are cooked through, I stir an egg and butter mixture into the broth, which binds in a minute. I ladle out portions over the bread and cheese and garnish each bowl with parsley. The soup is on.

Conversation waxes as my guests finish off the soup. They open a second round of beer while I serve the black bean enchiladas. I provide a bowl of homemade hot sauce for the enchiladas, since they are pungent with seasonings but not picante.

The perfect accompaniment to this hearty entrée is a crisp spinach salad with sliced fresh mushrooms and roasted soybeans (crunchy and nutty, these replace crumbled bacon, which is a traditional ingredient in spinach salads). The salad glistens in a vinaigrette dressing, and a plate of sliced ripe tomatoes garnished with parsley complements it.

This meal requires a light dessert. In the refrigerator a bowl of peeled, sliced oranges tossed with fresh mint is marinating in Grand Marnier. What looks like plain oranges surprises my guests, who think upon first glance, “What’s so great about this?” But the combination of Grand Marnier, citrus, and mint is so refreshing that it sings.

Cream of Raw and Cooked Mushroom Soup
Bavarian Crème au Café

Champagne and a dazzling caviar mousse garnished with radishes, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, and yellow squash inaugurate my next dinner. Accompanying the hors d’oeuvres is a long loaf of black bread in a basket and unsalted butter. On a large plate are rounds of cucumber and yellow squash topped with mounds of Houmos, a Middle Eastern spread of garbanzos and sesame butter (tahini).

As the champagne disappears I carefully heat the cream of mushroom soup while a guest opens bottles of white wine. I garnish each fragrant serving with parsley and several raw mushroom slices, which add contrasting texture and garden freshness.

Puffing up in the oven is a golden spinach strudel, a Greek dish called spanokopita (spa-no-KO-pi-ta). It is made with many buttered layers of paper-thin dough wrapped around a savory cheese and spinach filling. I present this beauty, serving it to my friends in large diamond-shaped pieces.

I then bring in a molded rice-ring salad, a lush mixture of brown rice, herbs, minced vegetables, roasted soybeans, chopped walnuts, and parmesan, tossed with a vinaigrette dressing and served on a platter lined with dark green lettuce leaves. Radishes are placed around the ring and the middle is filled with cherry tomatoes and sunflower greens—long, slender sprouts with a flavor like watercress. The combined colors, textures, and flavors are glorious.

Between courses I make coffee and whip cream. Then comes one of the best desserts of my repertoire, Bavarian crème au café, a light mousse-like dish with a whisper of peppermint extract.

Deep-Dish Pizza
Strawberry-Cassis Sherbet

My grand finale dinner is on Valentine’s Day. For weeks I’d envisioned heart-shaped deep-dish pizzas and a frosted punch bowl filled with champagne, molded sherbet, and floating strawberries.

I greet my guests with a platter of marinated vegetables vinaigrette: mushrooms, cucumbers, sliced potatoes that have been steamed crisp-tender, yellow squash, radishes, and rounds of bell pepper and bermuda onion. Unmarinated vegetables will serve as dippers for bagna cauda, a hot dish made with butter, olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and salt, which bubbles like a fondue in my chafing dish. We drink champagne and toast to romance.

Tonight’s soup is pistou, a Provençal vegetable soup enriched with a heady pesto. I season the simmering vegetable broth, add the zucchini and peas, and, almost immediately, stir in the wonderfully rich pesto and serve. The vegetables remain crisp and bright green, and each bowl is sprinkled with parmesan and parsley. The scene then moves to the long table, where red wine, baskets of French bread, and garlicky herb butter await us.

The deep-dish pizzas in heart-shaped cake pans are the real showstoppers. While they are pies with a rich, Italian tomato sauce and generous amounts of mozzarella and parmesan, they are different from traditional pizzas. The whole wheat, double-crusted pies are filled with a mixture more reminiscent of lasagna. The puffy crusts have scalloped edges and are engraved with arrows. My friends are delighted as I place these seductive tawny-crusted valentines on the table along with a large mixed green salad.

While we eat, the punch bowl is frosting in the freezer. In it is a molded strawberry and cassis sherbet, decorated with fresh mint leaves. When I remove the bowl from the freezer, I surround the sherbet with sliced strawberries that have been marinating in a not-too-sweet honey syrup (unnecessary if you have sweet, ripe strawberries). Then I flame it with Grand Marnier. I hadn’t planned on the beautiful blue flame, but we are feeling extravagant at this point. What I had planned to do was pour semidry champagne over the whole thing, which I do at the table. The dessert is worthy of Valentine’s Day and a sensuous testament to the possibilities of vegetarian cuisine.

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