Vegetarian bounty

ELIZABETH LATHAM
Last updated 12:35 15/06/2012
Vegetarian meal
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ

TANTALISING TABLE: From left, roast carrots with thyme and garlic, braised red peppers, cannellini beans and fennel, mushrooms with blue cheese and balsamic dressing, and spinach and ricotta frittata.

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At the Table

'Tis the season to be hungry Echoes of the Med Hot from the pot There's no taste like home Land of hops and honey Eating on the street A taste of the tropics Myths and mellow fruitfulness Crustacean craving Oh for onions

With many resolute vegetarian friends and family, I have come to love to make a vegetarian table, even though I am undoubtedly a carnivore.

The key to doing it well, I believe, is in variety; plenty of dishes and lots of fresh herbs or spices.

Often when meat or fish is the centrepoint, the other dishes become mere accompaniments rather than a feature by themselves, so the exciting challenge about a vegetarian table is to create equally tasty and interesting dishes that complement and enhance each other.

The challenge is to make the carnivores believe they have been satisfied despite the lack of flesh.

Having just returned from a fabulous Latin American experience, where vegetables don't really take centre stage, except for salsas of course; I was craving salads and vegetables.

I was reminded how many vegetables I eat either in salads or as dishes in their own right. In the supermarket for the first time I was enormously attracted to the vegetable section and filled half a trolley with spinach, salad greens, broccoli, silver beet, fennel, carrots, mushrooms, peppers, onions, shallots, leeks, agria potatoes, parsnips and celery.

With all this bounty at hand I began to craft a menu that would satisfy the desire for tasty vegetarian fare. In the absence of meat or fish, choosing a pulse or grain is the best place to start.

It could be many things: beans, lentils, quinoa, pasta, rice, couscous, polenta are all obvious choices and can help dictate the direction of the rest of the ingredients.

Probably my most favourite vegetarian meal is spinach and ricotta cannelloni with pesto, fennel salad, fresh tomato marinara sauce, sauteed artichokes, olives, a green salad and lashings of parmigiano reggiano.

Another vegetarian option I really like starts with puy lentils cooked with shallots and marjoram. I serve this with roasted caramelised red onions, roast agria potatoes, romesco sauce, green beans with garlic and parmigiano.

A rice-based vegetarian table I love to make is rice cooked in stock with chickpeas and a puree of tomato, onion, garlic, oregano and coriander. Serve this with roast red peppers, spinach salad with peas, feta and toasted almonds and another salad of grated carrots, cumin seed, celery and toasted sesame seeds in a lime and olive oil dressing.

You can use grilled haloumi cheese rather than feta with the spinach.

I particularly like to make an Indian vegetarian table and featured this in At the Table a few months back. Basmati rice, dahl, potato and pea curry, chickpea curry, a hot spicy tomato curry, a cucumber raita and maybe some pakoras, with lime pickle.

There are equally great options using the magnificent grain quinoa served either hot or cold, spicy or mild. Quinoa (pronounced keenwa) is actually a seed and when cooked is fluffy and creamy with an edge of nutty crunch. It is a complete protein, is stacked with health benefits and tastes good too.

For this meal I chose cannellini beans, one of my favourites that can be enjoyed many different ways. They have a rich, smooth flavour and combine very well with many other tastes. I combined these with sauteed fennel bulb and fennel seeds.

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As a contrast with a strong earthy flavour, try portobello mushrooms grilled with blue cheese and balsamic dressing. Roast carrots cooked in thyme and garlic. Braised red onion and red peppers. A spinach and ricotta frittata with marjoram and italian parsley.

All together, I think the flavours blend very well and make this an excellent meal.

SPINACH AND RICOTTA FRITTATA WITH MARJORAM AND PARSLEY

Serves 4

6 eggs
100g ricotta cheese
200g spinach
50g parmigiano reggiano cheese
2 Tbsp olive oil
3 Tbsp chopped fresh marjoram
2 Tbsp chopped italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Place washed spinach in a pot, put the lid on and cook until wilted. Drain and cool.

Squeeze out as much water as you can from the spinach.

Beat the eggs, add salt and pepper.

Combine the spinach with the fresh herbs and add to the eggs.

Heat the oil in a small, heavy-bottomed frypan, which must also be ovenproof, and add the egg and spinach mixture.

Cook until the egg begins to set around the edges.

Add the ricotta in dollops around the frittata and sprinkle over the parmigiano.

Place the pan under the grill and cook until the frittata turns golden brown and is just set through.BRAISED RED PEPPERSServes 4

4 red peppers sliced finely

1 red onion

2 tsp smoked paprika

1 tsp sea salt

2 Tbsp oilPut the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed pot and simmer gently until the peppers are reduced and thick and juicy.

ROAST CARROTS WITH THYME AND GARLIC

Serves 4

6 carrots cut into strips
2 Tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp sea salt
4 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp cider vinegar

Pound the garlic, salt, and thyme with a mortar and pestle until it forms a smooth paste.

Mix in the oil and vinegar.

Toss the carrots in the mixture and roast in a hot oven until tender.

GRILLED MUSHROOMS WITH BLUE CHEESE AND BALSAMIC DRESSING

Serves 4

4 large portobello mushrooms, peeled
A good blue cheese cut into slices to cover the tops of the mushrooms
1 clove of garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegarIn an ovenproof pan, saute the mushrooms in 2 Tbsp of olive oil for about 3 minutes. Place the slices of blue cheese over the tops of the mushrooms.
Place the pan under the grill in the oven and cook until the cheese is bubbling. Remove from the oven.
Make a dressing with the garlic, salt and pepper, remaining olive oil and balsamic and pour over the mushrooms.

CANNELLINI BEANS WITH FENNEL

Serves 4

400g cooked cannellini beans
1 fennel bulb
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp fennel seed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup vegetable stock

Slice the fennel into thin slices and saute in the olive oil. Reserve 1 Tbsp of the green top to add to the beans.

Saute until they are slightly golden then add the beans, fennel seeds, salt and pepper and stock.

Simmer gently for about 15 minutes to combine the flavours.

- Nelson

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