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The Essential Vegetarian

By Katharyn Jeffreys

Features Editor

At press time, I had attended the first of the three vegetarian cooking classes offered this week by Aramark and the MIT Vegetarian Group. It was my first cooking class, outside of Home Economics, and I found it very enjoyable. There were about 15 attendants who contributed to making seven “Quick and Easy” dishes. All the dishes turned out so well I will be interested to see what constitutes gourmet cooking on Wednesday.

Highlights of the meal were the simple balsamic vinaigrette, the colorful grilled vegetable platters, and the eggplant parmesan. I worked on the eggplant, and was surprised at how easy it was to make a dozen servings. After overcoming my fear of the enormous pot of oil, browning the breaded slices of eggplant was simple. The result was an impressive and tasty dish which I would serve to any large group of people.

The meal finished with an impressive baked brie and fruit platter. I had never seen this dish before, and was impressed by its taste and class. It would make a great appetizer or, as we had it, dessert.

The cooking tips offered by the chef who taught us how to make our dishes were very useful. From how to hold a knife safely (curl your fingers under so your fingertips are not at risk of being sliced) to how to make use of over-ripe fruit (in a coulis for ice cream or in a sorbet), it was a good introduction to some of the more advanced cooking tricks. Overall, the lesson and meal were well worth the time and registration fee.

I recently went to dinner with a devout meat eater. We enjoyed a vegetarian meal together at The Helmand, the Boston area’s only Afghan restaurant. It is located at 143 First Street in Cambridge, near the Galleria Mall.

The vegetarian options comprise about one third of the entrees and nearly all of the appetizers, soups and salads offered. This restaurant offers a unique ethnic alternative to Chinese and Indian food. Dishes are comprised of vegetables such as pumpkin, eggplant, spinach, and leeks mixed with sauces and served with rice.

To start we split Aushak, a ravioli-like appetizer filled with leeks and scallions. I was not impressed with the size or quality of the dish. For my entree, I had a special called Dolma which had eggplants stuffed with spinach along with cauliflower and other vegetables in a chunky sauce that was flavorful but overpowered the vegetables’ taste. The vegetarian special at The Helmand was a palette of pumpkin, eggplant, okra, and the highlight, spinach.

Overall the food was a pleasant change from the heavy fare offered by many local ethnic restaurants. The spice of the meal was neutralized by the blander desserts. I had a custard which played off the sweet fresh fruit bits with which it was topped.

In addition the ambiance was very cozy on a chilly evening. The overstuffed couches in the front, sunny yellow walls, a wall of wine, and two fireplaces gave an almost Mediterranean feeling to the restaurant. We were seated next to the fireplace in which the tasty complimentary bread was baked. The warmth and bustle of the workers baking at the fireplace was a nice touch. The service was prompt but curt; with the spice of dishes, I wished my water glass was more readily refilled.

The following is another recipe from the menu of the New England Soup Factory’s menu, now that the weather has finally gotten cold. This one is taken from the Boston Globe’s recipe archive at <>. As always, feel free to e-mail me at with questions or comments.

New England Soup Factory’s spinach and zucchini bisque with roasted leeks

4 tablespoons salted butter

1 1/2 cups diced onion

1 1/2 cups diced celery

1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

3 zucchini (about 1 3/4 pounds), cut in large chunks

2 large potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and diced

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock

2 quarts firmly packed spinach leaves (about 1 pound)

1 cup heavy cream

Nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste

Roasted leeks (see recipe below)

Melt the butter in a Dutch oven or large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onion, celery, fennel, and garlic, and saute 10 to 12 minutes or until the onion is softened. Add the zucchini and potatoes, and mix to combine.

Add the stock and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Remove from the heat and add the spinach in batches, mixing with a large spoon after each addition until the spinach wilts.

Puree in batches in a blender. To prevent splashing, remove the inner core of the blender cover and hold a kitchen towel over the top. Return the puree to the pot.

Add the cream, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and roasted leeks, and heat thoroughly. Makes about 14 cups.

For roasted leeks:

4 medium leeks, thinly sliced (about 3 cups)

2 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the leeks, oil, salt, and pepper; toss gently. Spread in a roasting pan and roast for 20 minutes, stirring once or twice.