Not a nut in sight

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The Independent Culture
As a quasi-vegetarian, I do not indulge in the Sunday roast. I do, however, miss it. Not, as you might imagine, because of the act of pulling out from the oven a piece of meat that is sizzling irresistibly, crispy and well done on the outside, sitting in a pool of sticky roasting juices. No, it is the sheer ease of preparation and the large number of people it will see to that give rise to roast envy. For the vegetarian there is no equivalent to meat, or fish for that matter: no roast joints and no whole poached salmon. The closest attempt to date to deliver a vegetarian equivalent to a Sunday joint is the nut roast. The connotations, unfortunately, are farcical. And not surprisingly.

A friend once asked me to supply a good recipe for a nut roast. I failed. My understanding of nut roast (at its most gruesome) is a dried, Polyfilla-style mix which you add water to, and then shape into sausages, burgers, cutlets, spatchcocked poussin, roast leg of lamb and so on. It's a dummy.

On the other hand, roasted vegetables - or perhaps leeks braised in the oven with butter, white wine and thyme - scattered with a crisp layer of roasted hazelnuts mixed with fried breadcrumbs and seasoned with ground coriander, that's different.

In practice, there are many more little vegetarian dishes than there are big vegetarian dishes. But since it is onerous to have to apply yourself to four or five different recipes on a Sunday morning - this being a day of rest - the first kindness to yourself is carefully to select just one central dish.

In Spain, the answer is a paella. This will translate to include whatever vegetables are in season, and spring, with its young, new-season offerings, produces a particularly good version: asparagus, peas and broad beans, young carrots and fennel bulbs. You could also add okra, red peppers, courgettes and artichokes.

While staying in Seville, I became quite obsessed with paellas, and the paraphernalia to be found in hardware stores: special, flat-based metal dishes with sloping sides and a handle either side that come in sizes from "serves two" to many feet in diameter. And there are all manner of burners on tripods for producing the dish out of doors. Even gas hobs carry a special, wide-jet ring for making it.

But, assuming that you don't have any of this kit, you can use a roasting dish, a fireproof casserole or a large saucepan - the point being that it should contain the rice in a thin layer so as to cook it evenly.

As with a risotto, start by sweating garlic and onion in olive oil. For four people, add about 700g/112lb prepared vegetables and sweat them, then add 275g/10oz arborio rice, and a generous pinch of saffron filaments that have been ground and blended with a tablespoon of boiling water and a glass of white wine. Once this is absorbed, add a good pint of vegetable stock and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is tender.

Next, cover the pan with a tea towel and leave for 5-10 minutes, then fluff up the rice with a fork, add some chopped parsley or coriander, and serve it with a rouille, or aioli and lemon wedges. If serving eight people, double the amount and use two pans.

Cheese fondue is another good one-dish lunch that is good with spring vegetables. Bread is the usual dipper, but, considering how rich the molten gloop is, steamed asparagus spears and young carrots are good alternatives. Or Jersey Royal potatoes, which make deliciously earthy dipping material.

For a more "roasty" feel, try a selection of stuffed vegetables - aubergines, peppers, mushrooms and artichokes that have been baked in the oven with a zesty stuffing that will turn crusty at the edges: a base of breadcrumbs flavoured with chopped wild mushrooms and Parmesan, or herbs, olives, capers and lemon zest. You can serve the vegetables hot or cold, with olive oil poured over, and some rocket leaves tucked in here and there.

Filo pies are very in at the moment, the finest without doubt being the Greek spanakotyropitta, a deep filling of spinach, feta cheese and eggs between a buttery stack of filo pastry sheets. Rena Salaman explores the variations on this pie in Greek Food (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99).

In fact, pies generally, as in quiches, are good Sunday lunch material, especially now that warmer weather approaches and tepid offerings are once again acceptable: you can bake the pastry shell ready for filling the evening before, or even make a pie and then reheat it. Now that's something you can't do with a roast.

Beyond this, there is a handful of vegetarian, or nearly vegetarian, cookery books you can use when hunting for ideas. The best known is The Greens Cookbook (Bantam Press, pounds 16.99) by Deborah Madison: really dynamic Californian cooking. Verdura - Vegetables Italian Style (Macmillan, pounds 12.99) by Viana la Place is crammed with eminently cookable vegetable dishes with a summer flavour. And Thai Vegetarian Cooking (Pavilion, pounds 12.99) by Vatcharin Bhumichitr will help you conquer Thai salads.

Two books that are not specifically vegetarian, but have lots to offer, are Lindsey Bareham's In Praise of the Potato (Penguin, pounds 9.99) and Onions without Tears (Michael Joseph, pounds 17.50). Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book (Penguin, pounds 15) and The Mushroom Feast (Penguin, pounds 13) are in the same vein.

Roger Verge's Vegetables (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 19.99) again is almost vegetarian, with some wonderful ideas for the more adventurous, and The Natural Cuisine of Georges Blanc (now out of print) is an old-time favourite - not exactly ten-minute cuisine, but a great starting point that you can trust.

This last most definitely would not be recognised by The Vegetarian Society - even though it is 98 per cent meat free, for some reason frogs' legs creep in here and there. A few years back, I explained to a chef in a restaurant that while I was happy to eat fish, I did not eat meat. He promptly sent out a dish of rabbit. Evidently, in some people's eyes, things that hop are in a distinct group of their own

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