Time and again, inquiring dining companions want to know: Doesn't being a vegetarian get dull?
No. To paraphrase the late sports columnist Red Smith's retort to baseball's detractors, vegetarian is a dull cuisine for cooks with dull minds. When you're working with the world's bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, spices and cheeses, monotony should not be an issue.
Besides, variety is crucial to vegetarian meals. Combining different foods--grains with legumes, for example, and milk products with grains--is the only way short of serving meat, fish or fowl, to provide good quality, useable protein.
My favorite way to innovate is to cross ethnic lines, taking a food characteristic of one nation and pairing it with a complementary food from another. For the following dish, I started with two ideas from India: dosas-- pancakes stuffed with vegetables, and spinach with paneer --spicy spinach with a soft cheese. I substituted a French crepe batter for the dosas, and fresh mozzarella for the paneer .
SPICED SPINACH IN CREPES
1 cup flour
1 1/4 cups water
3 eggs, beaten
3 bunches spinach
3 medium or 4 small new potatoes
2 tablespoons butter or oil
1 teaspoon whole black mustard seeds
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, grated
1 tablespoon grated ginger root
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese
Plain yogurt, whipped until smooth and warmed to room temperature
Add flour and 1 cup water to beaten eggs and stir with whisk until well blended. Season to taste with salt. Let mixture sit while preparing filling.
Wash and dry spinach. Tear spinach coarsely. Do not chop.
Boil potatoes until cooked through but not mushy. Chop potatoes into tiny chunks. Heat butter in large skillet. Add mustard seeds. When seeds start to sizzle, add onion, garlic and ginger. Saute until onion turns tender and translucent.
Add cumin, coriander and cayenne. Stir until well blended. Add potatoes and stir until coated with spices. Add spinach and 1/4 cup water. Stir to blend. If mixture is sticking to pan, add more water, 1 tablespoon at time, to prevent burning.
Cover and cook until spinach is bright green, about 3 minutes.
Cut cheese into 1/2-inch pieces and toss into spinach mixture, distributing well. Replace cover and turn off heat.
For crepes, heat 7-inch non-stick skillet, or brush 7-inch crepe pan with melted butter before heating. Drop batter onto skillet, 3 tablespoons at a time, and rotate pan so batter covers surface. When bubbles appear, flip crepe with spatula. Remove to wax paper.
To assemble, spread filling over half of crepe and roll up. Top with dollop of yogurt and cilantro. Makes 12 crepes or 4 servings.
Note: Fresh mozzarella cheese is available at Italian delicatessens and at many local supermarkets that feature gourmet items. It comes packaged in water, not bound in plastic casing. If fresh is not available, omit from recipe.