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A vegetarian’s adventures in Europe

By Katie Jeffreys

features editor

Welcome to another year of the Essential Vegetarian. For those of you who are not familiar with the column, it appears weekly, presenting restaurant reviews, recipes, facts and tips relevant to the vegetarian lifestyle. If you ever have any comments on the columns, issues you would like addressed here, etc., I can be reached at

I spent this summer in Europe, primarily working in Venice, Italy. I found that people there generally have a more difficult time understanding vegetarianism than Americans. Twice I met people who showed great excitement when I said I was a vegetarian, because they claimed to be also. I quickly found out that one of them meant he ate very little red meat and would eat all other kinds of meat, and the other frequently ate fish. They didn’t understand what the standard American definition of vegetarian meant (not consuming any meat: beef, poultry, pork, fish, etc). This was not a function of the language barrier, but simply the rarity of true vegetarians in Europe.

Consumption of meat in Europe extends beyond American standards as well, including horse meat as a moderately common dish. I found one entertaining example of the European attitude towards meat in a magazine advertisement. At first glance the image was of a field filled with pink and white flowers. Upon closer inspection I realized that the flowers were in fact made of the thinly sliced ham rimmed in white fat which is served with many meals. This juxtaposition of a field of wildflowers and the processed meat it was composed of struck me as both amusing and insulting.

One of my first chores in Venice was to establish myself as a vegetarian with the lunch ladies in the cafeteria I ate at. I thought I would be able to explain myself to them, but was once served a dish containing tuna, having verified that there was no ‘carne’ in it. I later learned this word, meaning ‘meat’ (which to me would include fish) implies beef, and sometimes pork, only. I quickly learned the Italian words for both meat and vegetable products so as not to be surprised by little fish or meat sauce in my pasta.

When I chose to avoid the Venetian restaurants, I was able to create wonderful vegetarian meals, which took advantage of the fresh produce markets throughout the city, as well as the large kitchen in my apartment. I personally felt that the mixed vegetable pastas, hearty veggie lasagna, bruschetta, and garlic mashed potatoes which I served rivaled those found in many of Boston’s (admittedly mediocre) Italian restaurants.

Next week’s topic: Cheese. (Europe’s vegetarian friend) Until then, I will leave you with my ‘recipe’ for veggie lasagna. I was surprised with the simplicity of this dish -- don’t be afraid to experiment with the fillings. The amounts of the ingredients are approximate (I converted from kilograms) so use your judgement.

Vegetable Lasagna

Lasagna noodles (one box or the equivalent of fresh noodles)

1 lb fresh spinach

1 lb ricotta cheese

1 egg

2-3 cloves of garlic, diced

1 jar of tomato (pasta) sauce

Assorted fresh vegetables (zucchini, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, onion, etc.) cut up into small pieces

2-3 balls of fresh mozzarella (about 12 oz, cut into slices)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If the lasagna noodles are dried (hard), prepare them as directed. In a 9”x12” casserole dish spread enough tomato sauce to cover the bottom. Heat olive oil in a large frying pan, and brown the garlic in it. Add the chopped vegetables, and saute until tender, then add the remaining sauce. Simmer the sauce while preparing the ricotta mixture.

Wash the spinach, removing the stems. Chop the spinach in a food processor and fold it into the ricotta, adding the egg as you do so.

Spread some of the noodles in the casserole dish, covering the bottom completely. Then layer alternatively ricotta, sauce, noodles, and mozzarella, ending with a layer of sauce and mozzarella. Create the layers so that all the fillings are used up. Bake until the cheese on the top becomes brown and the noodles around the edges become crispy. Allow the dish to ‘set’ for about ten minutes before serving.