Vegetarian cooks, like cooks everywhere, want to create memorable meals that nourish not only the body but the soul as well. Cooking vegetarian doesn’t have to be a complicated, big deal as long as the food is fresh, contains no meat, and wasn’t manufactured using fat or other animal foods. The range of vegetarian starters is beyond mind-boggling. Even carnivores enjoy choosing one or several nonmeat appetizers to kick off a truly glorious meal.
Cooks have been offering vegetarian starters without a second thought since time immemorial. A simple tray of the freshest carrots and celery sticks or radishes cut into simple roses set the stage. Some curried or herbed yogurt or hummus to dip them in makes a great starter than won’t fill diners up before the main event.
More formal vegetarian starters include fruit and tomato salsa, stuffed grape leaves, or a lovely baked brie. Of course, as every good home cook knows, the appetizer must complement the main meal, rather than conflict with it. Grape leaves would be a wonderful opening into a Mediterranean meal of couscous and a salad, for example. Baked brie might precede meatless ratatouille, and the salsa lets diners know that dinner will have a Latin flair.
Pâtés made with goose liver or other meats are certainly off the table, as are salmon, caviar, or other seafood-based starters. A quick trip through the virtual world will arm even the most inexperienced vegetarian cook with a multitude of nonmeat spreads for whole grain crackers or peasant bread. Beans, garlic, and a variety of herbs can be used for a brilliant pâté. Tofu combines gracefully with dill, rosemary, or other traditional seafood herbs into a satisfying puree. Adding a little roasted red pepper and a dollop of cream cheese not only ups the flavor ante but lends the spread a salmon-like color, an illusion that is enhanced by sprinkling a few capers across the top.
Pastry crust vegetarian starters are easy to put together. Homemade or purchased individual pastry cups can be filled with cheese, cream, and sautéed onion for delicious quiche. Vegetarian samosas created with rice or potatoes, lentils, or dried beans and served with mango or lime pickle are another great beginning.
An oven-roasted eggplant offers a uniquely silky texture as a background for babaganoush, a Middle Eastern appetizer. Roasting dials up eggplant’s normally very shy taste, and the addition of tahini, or pureed sesame seeds, a little olive oil, and some fresh garlic results in a dip for vegetables and a spread for crackers or bread. Served with oil-cured olives, there’s almost no chance of leftovers but if there are, they can be mixed with pasta for tomorrow’s lunchtime salad.