- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2005

CONCORD, N.H. - All vegetarians are teetotalers, right?

Given the tone of most vegetarian cookbooks, you’d be forgiven for thinking so. For reasons that befuddle me, few veg writers tackle wine and spirits, and when they do, it often is little more than in a spare reference to wine for cooking risotto.

I don’t get this. Enjoying tofu — or at least choosing not to enjoy meat — can coexist quite happily with an appreciation for the wines and other alcohols that can provide a meal with so much character.

Carnivorous food writers know this and have produced countless books dedicated to cooking with and enjoying alcohol.

Maybe old-school veggies think wine’s hip, uptown image clashes with the brown-rice-and-tofu notions that many early vegetarian cookbooks espoused, but meatless eating has come a long way, and it deserves a serious toast.

A few years ago, Vegetarian Times magazine picked up on this and added a wine expert to its roster of contributors. For a while, nearly every recipe included wine-pairing suggestions. Sadly, this was dropped during a recent redesign.

The good news is that veg food writer Paulette Mitchell has filled the void with an outstanding new cookbook, “The Spirited Vegetarian” (Rodale, $16.95).

Because I enjoyed this book so much, I’m going to get my two criticisms out of the way first, in hope that the publisher (and all publishers) get the message. First, a book this good deserves photos. If the food isn’t bland, why should the book be?

Just listen to these recipes: tequila-braised kale, Sangiovese tomato sauce, potato salad with red zinfandel dressing, sangria fruit salad. Readers want to see (and by virtue of seeing, smell and taste) that sort of vibrancy.

Second, preparation times would help busy cooks judge whether a dish is weekday-friendly. Please include them.

Enough kvetching. I loved this book, and there is a lot to like.

Miss Mitchell opens with a concise primer for cooking with wine, complete with basic tips for adjusting flavors, how and when to use wines, a brief glossary and a chart for helping cooks select the best wine for a dish.

She also scatters more than 100 tips throughout the book — such as how to rinse capers and how to select the best peas — and includes a special index that helps readers find them.

Then there are the recipes. This is good food, real food. No tofu pretending to be tenderloin here. How about some olives baked in cabernet, sweet-potato stew with sherry, or chili with raisins and syrah?

Most of the recipes are simple and don’t require countless ingredients. Many are easy enough to pull together during the week but also impressive enough for entertaining.

I was especially pleased with the variety of alcohols Miss Mitchell uses. Not just red and white wines, or even just the many varieties of each. Mirin (a Japanese cooking wine) in sesame noodles, tequila in a fruit salad, and port as a portobello mushroom glaze.

I tested several recipes, all of which were quite good. I particularly enjoyed the bow-tie pasta with Marsala mushroom sauce and the red wine ratatouille, which I ate with nothing but a loaf of crusty bread. It also would be great on pasta.

Red wine ratatouille

Preparation time is 1 hour 15 minutes.

1/4 cup olive oil

1 large onion, quartered and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 eggplant (about 1 pounds) peeled and cut into -inch cubes (about 6 cups)

2 cups green beans, cut to 2-inch lengths

1 green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

1 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped

15-ounce can tomato sauce

cup shiraz or other full-bodied red wine

3 tomatoes, cut into -inch chunks

1 tablespoon sugar

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil, or 2 teaspoons dried

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried

teaspoon salt, or to taste

teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or other heavy pot over a medium flame. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and stir constantly for 1 minute.

Reduce heat to low. Add the eggplant, green beans and bell peppers. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, cover and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, about another 30 minutes. Ratatouille is best if allowed to stand for 20 minutes off the heat before serving.

Makes six 1-cup servings.

Bow-tie pasta with marsala-mushroom sauce

Preparation time is 20 minutes.

8 ounces bow-tie pasta

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cups sliced fresh mushrooms, such as cremini, shiitake, oyster, chanterelle or a combination (about 12 ounces)

1/4 cup minced shallots

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

1/4 cup Marsala wine

2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh tarragon, or 1/4 teaspoon dried

teaspoon salt, or to taste

teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste

Finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta according to package directions.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over a medium flame. Add the mushrooms, shallots and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes.

Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil, then add the flour and stir until bubbly. Add the milk and stir until thickened, about 3 minutes. Add remaining ingredients except the parsley, and stir until thoroughly warmed.

When the pasta is done, drain and arrange in shallow bowls. Top with the mushroom sauce, and garnish with parsley. Makes 4 servings.

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