The last entirely vegetarian dinner party I cooked was a wintry little number, but very satisfying, with a few nicely contrasting elements I think. The mainstay was a mushroom ragu served on creamy polenta, paired with a side dish of a punchy green salad with lentils & goat’s cheese.
There are a couple of things that made this work well. First, both the ragu and the lentils used the roasted vegetable stock, as I described ages ago here. This time though, I took a leaf out of Skye Gyngell’s book – her secret flavour weapons often include tamari sauce and maple syrup, so I added a tablespoon of each to the reduced stock. I swear this little combo, while not leaping out as separate flavours, really gives a layered depth and complexity to the stock.
Next was the assortment of mushrooms. I used about 600g of combined chopped Portobello, field and Swiss brown mushrooms, and later added – importantly – a good tablespoon’s worth of dried porcinis to the mix. Again, this gives a big hit of rich flavour.
Mushroom ragu with creamy polenta
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium onion
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 600g chopped fresh mushrooms
- 1 x can peeled tomatoes
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 cup roasted vegetable stock
- 10g dried porcini, rehydrated & chopped
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 sprig rosemary
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- grated Parmesan, to serve
- Heat oil & add celery, carrot, onion, garlic and some sea salt, sauté until soft.
- Add a good big knob of butter & a little more oil, turn up the heat and – gradually, in batches – sauté the fresh mushrooms with the mirepoix over a high heat until the mushrooms lose most of their moisture and are nicely browned.
- Add wine, tomatoes, stock and herbs and bring to the boil, then turn down to a simmer.
- Add the chopped porcini and liquid to the sauce.
- Stir, then simmer uncovered for around 30 minutes (or even up to an hour), till the sauce has reduced and thickened, adding another good slug of oil if it looks too watery. Add stock or water if at any stage it becomes too thick.
- Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.
Not long before you’re ready to serve, make the creamy polenta – this is dead simple, as described here, but does take a little time. Just do the onion & milk bit ahead of time, and if you need to, have your guests chat with you in the kitchen while you stir.
Spoon the polenta into shallow pasta bowls, and top with a heap of the mushroom ragu (add a tiny swizzle of olive oil at the last second, if you dare), and sprinkle with Parmesan at the table.
Green salad with lentils & goat’s cheese
This zingy little salad can be made completely ahead of time and simply dressed & tossed just before you eat.
1. Sling half a cup of puy lentils into a pan of hot vegetable stock, and simmer for 20 minutes or till tender. Drain and return to the pan with a splash of olive oil till ready to assemble the salad.
2. Have some slow-roasted tomatoes (scroll down on the Essential Ingredients page) ready to go.
3. When you’re ready to serve, toss some good green salad leaves (specially good with some texturally springy ones, like curly endive and radicchio as well as soft lettuce) together with the scattered lentils and tomatoes in a bowl with a dressing of three-parts good extra-virgin oil to one-part best-quality balsamic vinegar. Then tear up some marinated goat’s cheese (or even better, your homemade labneh!) and toss it into the salad in chunks. Serve in a bowl at the table.
For dessert, I can’t recommend this whole orange cake highly enough – and because it’s made with almond meal instead of flour, it gives your guests another dose of good nutty protein. Serve it with some more yoghurt or cream on the side. Another almondy option is a frangipane tart, and although I haven’t made this particular one, there is a beautiful-sounding recipe here. Otherwise, I’d go for some other fruit-based dessert.
So there you have it – a simple but I think nicely varied vegetarian dinner menu for four, with heaps of punchy flavour and texture, and also providing a reasonably diverse mix of protein, dairy, carbohydrate and lots of other goodies.
I would love to hear comment from our vegetarian visitors about how this combination might be improved – and as well, keep your ideas for zingy vego dinner party dishes coming.