Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi French Bliss

By Julie Birnbaum

MAY 11, 1998:  French bistro cooking without dead fluffy animals like lamb and rabbit is almost as challenging as meatloaf without ground-up dead cow. In The Vegetarian Bistro, Marlena Spieler, who has written a number of cookbooks with Mediterranean themes, attempts to make French food accessible to those who prefer to eat little or no meat. Her results are surprisingly delicious--and numerous--including soufflés, wonderful salads, gratins, pastries and desserts. Vegans, however, might be best advised to avoid France: No culture worships cream, eggs, butter and cheese of all stenches like the Français.

Anyone familiar with France will appreciate Spieler's introduction, with her accounts of watching a chic Saint-Tropézienne and her chic poodle each nibbling on their own sundried tomato pizzas and her tips on ordering meatless dishes from famously obnoxious French waiters. As she points out, vegetarianism is becoming increasingly popular in France, but most vegetarian restaurants offer a variety of world recipes rather than traditional dishes. Spieler's quest was to find authentic regional recipes that either don't include meat or can be prepared without it.

In fact, rabbits and lambs aside, the French know how to appreciate a large variety of fine, fresh vegetables, and we're not talking just celery and carrots here. Leeks, sorrel, lentils, parsnips, asparagus and mushrooms, bien sûr, have been popular there since the Middle Ages, and contact with Italy and the New World brought artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes and squash. All of these were incorporated into the rich, flavorful dishes the French are famous for.

The bistro is far from many people's vision of French dining--formal, with rigid courses and exacting preparation. Often family-owned, a bistro is cozy and casual, with the daily menu scribbled on a chalkboard and diners rubbing elbows at tiny, closely set tables. Most of the time, the diner orders a set meal, including an entrée (the first, not the main course), a plat du jour, usually based around the freshest |market item that day, and a dessert.

Since the first course is most often vegetable-based, Spieler focuses on this dish in what is probably the book's strongest section. Her recipes include Provençal salads of tomatoes, basil and olive with fresh goat cheese, traditional warm salads with ingredients like new potatoes, beets, frisée greens and Roquefort, ratatouille omelettes and crepes. Many of them are quite simple to prepare, relying mainly on fresh, high-quality ingredients. Here in Albuquerque, we don't have the year-round, crowded outdoor markets which are a mainstay of French cuisine, but ingredients like herbed goat cheese and endives can be found at local stores such as La Montañita Co-op and Wild Oats. Main dishes without meat are harder to come by in France, but Spieler re-invents several traditional favorites such as cassoulet, stuffed vegetables and stews.

Finally, dessert. The French are famous for their complex, dramatic finishes to a meal: flambées, meringues, fluffy, rich mousse. Spieler includes these scrumptious recipes, which take more time to prepare but are well worth it for special occasions. She includes simpler, lighter dessert fare as well, such as fresh fruit in tartes and soups or poached with red wine. All of her directions are relatively easy to follow and don't require much special equipment besides a blender or food processor.

Francophiles who love to eat indulgently but without meat: This book is for you. Nonvegetarians who think that all vegetarian food involves things that scare them, such as tofu and tempeh: This book might be an easy place to start thinking about meatless cooking. In the end, The Vegetarian Bistro makes it clear that French cuisine can be enjoyed without dead critters. Afterall, an artichoke and shallot quiche go well with a nice, light white wine from the Jura, and cassoulet is great with a Bordeaux or Côtes du Rhône, and don't forget autumn brings Beaujolais. (Chronicle, paper, $15.95)

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