Lettuce Entertain You

Four lavish meals prove that vegetarian cuisine can be elegant.

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

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