Strictly roots

Vegetarian dishes to tempt the most determined carnivore
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I wasn't sure when to break it to my husband that I had ordered the vegetarian menu for him, as well.

He is as married to meat as I am to vegetables, so I knew it would be met with silent disdain. But subjecting a committed carnivore to vegetarian food is the surest way of judging whether it is genuinely enjoyable, or merely a poor substitute for what is regarded as normal.

In my days as a very strict vegetarian, I was never comfortable arranging "special" dishes in restaurants. If there's nothing suitable on the menu, it's fair to assume the chef doesn't like cooking that kind of food - in which case, it's no great joy for the diner to be on the receiving end.

Because of this, I had been lured by Leith's vegetarian menu which takes pride of place beside the ordinary one. Given that I have lived in close vicinity to this restaurant for 15 years, it stands to reason that I had never eaten there. The menu was established some eight years ago by Pru Leith, the former owner, at about the same time as the Scottish chef, Alex Floyd, took over the kitchen.

When I spoke to Floyd to ask for recipes, he said they would take a week to write up, so I was prepared for something fancy. The meal began with an amuse-gueule of peppers: a turret of squares with a flag of crisply fried sage and a sprig of chervil.

The first course stood out as the real treat: three spring rolls, golden and very crispy on the outside, with a contrasting interior of silky shiitake mushrooms mixed with wilted lettuce leaves, all surrounded with sweetcorn sauce and occasional bursts of coriander.

The next course was more elaborate, "built rather than cooked" as my husband put it - comparing it to an architectural hybrid of Michael Graves meeting Frank Gehry (this might mean something to architects). Deconstructed, it went like this: a foundation of a garlic crouton with a pool of creamy leek brandade on top, held in by a coil of baby leeks in the fashion of water in a child's paddling pool. Next, a transparently fine disc of potato galette, and on top of that, a single, fat ravioli filled with goat's cheese and herbs. Around the edge were roasted halves of cherry tomato and poached quail's eggs.

Once I had dealt with the need to destroy it, I thoroughly enjoyed it. We are inwardly conditioned to respect craftsmanship, so eating technically proficient food is never a wholly acceptable experience. Still, I forced myself, and my husband appeared to have forgotten about the absence of meat as the pleasure of the assembly slipped down.

On from there, he got to have the cheese, and I didn't. The charming restaurant manager, David Scott-Bradbury, took one look at me and said: "I don't think a lady in your condition should be eating the `Stinking Bishop'." And it did look fairly dangerous as it oozed louchely from its rind. I'll be going back for that one.

Beyond the food, the pleasure of the evening was in its sense of special occasion. It's the trappings that do it: the basket of warm, home-made breads, an excellent wine list and cheeseboard. Would there were more like it.

The following menu is the stuff of dinner parties, based on the menu at Leith's, but I have simplified it for the home kitchen. All recipes serve 4.

Shiitake mushroom and cos lettuce spring rolls with sweetcorn and coriander sauce

You might like to decorate this course with a few salad leaves. You can make the sauce in advance, also the spring rolls, which can be fried at the last minute.

Spring rolls:

2tbsp peanut or grapeseed oil

225g/8oz shiitake mushrooms, finely sliced

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

2 small shallots, peeled and finely chopped

2 heaped tsp finely chopped or grated root ginger

1 cos lettuce heart, shredded

1 tsp chopped coriander

1tsp dark soy sauce

sea salt, black pepper

24 x 12.5 cm/5inch sheets spring roll pastry

1 large egg yolk mixed with a pinch of cornflour

vegetable oil for deep-frying

Heat the oil in a frying pan and quickly fry the mushrooms. Add the garlic and shallots and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the ginger, lettuce and coriander, and cook until it wilts. Season with the soy sauce, salt and pepper.

To assemble the rolls, brush a sheet of dough with the egg yolk and place another sheet on top. Brush the edges also, lace a line of filling at one end leaving a border either side: fold sides in and roll up tightly, brushing the loose edge with more egg yolk to seal it. Place on a plate, cover, and chill until required.

Heat the vegetable oil in a deep pan or a wok to 190C/375F - you can use a jam thermometer to gauge this. Fry the spring rolls in two batches until they are golden and crisp, drain on kitchen paper and service with the hot sauce drizzled around.

Sweetcorn sauce:

1 small shallot, peeled and thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped

25g/l oz unsalted butter

1 x 200g can sweetcorn kernels

4 tbsp dry white wine

4 tbsp vegetable stock

4 tbsp double cream

1 tsp coriander leaves

sea salt, black pepper

In a small saucepan, sweat the shallot and garlic in the butter until translucent, add the sweetcorn and cook 2-3 minutes. Add the wine and reduce by half, then add the vegetable stock and reduce by half. Add cream and coriander and simmer for several minutes, liquidise and pass through a sieve back into the pan. Season to taste. Serve warm, drizzled around the spring rolls.

Brandade of leeks with soft poached egg

If you can not find baby leeks then use ordinary ones and quarter them once cooked. The brandade can be made in advance and repeated.

Brandade:

225g/8oz maincrop potatoes, peeled and cubed

225g/8oz sliced leeks

570ml/1 pint semi-skimmed milk

1 clove garlic, smashed in skin

1 sprig thyme

1 bay leaf

2 black peppercorns, crushed sea salt

4 tbsp double cream

25g/l oz unsalted butter

black pepper

50g/2oz fresh white breadcrumbs

olive oil

4 x 7.5 cm/3inch circles white bread

1 clove garlic, peeled

450g/1 lb baby leeks, trimmed

white wine vinegar

4 large eggs

chopped chervil or chives

Place the potato, leeks, milk, garlic, herbs, peppercorns and a little salt in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Drain and return potato and leek mixture to pan and dry out over the heat, you can keep the cooking liquor for a soup.

Remove herbs and garlic and reduce to a coarse puree in a food processor. Try to do it quickly so it doesn't go gloopy. Return to pan and add the cream and butter so you have a sloppy puree. Season and stir in the white breadcrumbs. Reheat to serve.

Heat enough olive oil in a frying pan to shallow-fry the bread - cook until golden and crisp on both sides, cool on kitchen paper, and then rub with the clove of garlic.

Bring a pan of salted water to the boil and cook the leeks for about 10 minutes until tender. Drain and keep warm in covered pan.

Bring a large pan of water to the boil and acidulate it with vinegar, swirl the water with a spoon and break one egg into it at a time. Once the eggs rise to the surface, give them a minute or two longer for the outside to set. Remove with a slotted spoon, trimming off the ragged tails of white.

To serve, place a crouton on the base of each plate and pile the brandade on top. Place an egg on top of this and coil the leeks around the edge and over the top. Scatter with the chopped chervil or chives.

Coconut and cardamom rice pudding with passionfruit sauce

Leith's serve this with roasted pineapple and a passionfruit sorbet.

Rice:

200ml/7fl oz milk

150m1/5fl oz coconut milk

25g/1oz desiccated coconut

2 cardamom pods, seeds inside finely crushed

50g/2oz arborio rice

1 large egg yolk

50g/2oz caster sugar

100m1/4oz double cream

Bring the milk and coconut milk to the boil in a small saucepan. Add the desiccated coconut and cardamom and infuse for five minutes. Add the rice and simmer for 25 minutes, stirring regularly. Whisk the egg yolk and sugar together in a bowl and add the rice. Once cool, cover, and chill.

Whip the cream and fold into the rice pudding, cover and chill for several hours or overnight. Serve with the passionfruit sauce.

Sauce:

pulp of 10 passionfruit

4tbsp fresh orange juice

2 tbs water

50g/2oz caster sugar

Place the passionfruit pulp, orange juice, water and sugar in a small saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer for 3 minutes. Liquidise and pass through a fine sieve. Allow to cool, then cover and chill.

Leith's, 92 Kensington Park Road, London W11 (0171-229 4481)

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