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The challenge of a French vegetarian meal

This weekend the family is at last celebrating the three June birthdays at my son's house. We shall all be contributing to the feast. Mine, so far, is ratatouille. Why this? Well we have the vegetarian granddaughter, and so we need a main dish that she can eat. Tricky because the French classical repertoire does not really do vegetarian mains. Or does it?

The ratatouille shown here is the version proffered by the Recipe Tin Eats lady and it may well be the version I go for, because it actually seems to be a pretty authentic version, in that she sautés each vegetable separately before combining for the final braise. Which is how I thought I had first made it following Elizabeth David's recipe but no.

It is true that she doesn't sauté her vegetables all at once - you start with the onions, and then add the others in a particular order, but it's almost the same as cooking everything together.

Then there's Delia's modern version in which the vegetables are roasted in the oven. This recipe is one of Delia's most famous and one that we basically all know - fundamentally you just chuck everything together in a baking tray and cook. So simple, so delicious and so flexible in that the vegetables can be used in so many different ways. Elizabeth David's on the left, Delia's on the right. The danger is producing something that is too mushy.

But I see I'm drifting into a post about ratatouille, which I know I've done before and which wasn't really going to be my focus today. That was going to be about the difficulty, or at least the perceived difficulty of feeding a vegetarian with classic French fare. And ratatouille is what one always thinks of first. It seems worthy of being a main dish - but honestly it's not very balanced is it? No protein. Which doesn't mean you couldn't serve it, but you would need to slip some protein in elsewhere during the course of the meal.

I read somewhere that only 5% of the French are vegetarians, which is also the same as the USA. But whereas you can find vegetarian options everywhere in America, you won't easily in France, because the French are vehemently meat eaters. I don't know how old those figures are but apparently the times are changing. On the one hand the young are becoming increasingly vegetarian and on the the other hand the government, who wants to do the right thing environmentally speaking, is bringing in a bill that will decree various things:

"Meat will be off the menu at least one day a week in schools, while vegetarian options will be standard in public catering, and chefs will be trained in how to prepare healthy and toothsome plant-based meals."

I gather there is a lot of opposition to this. Apparently the mayor of Lyon tried a similar thing, but such were the protests that in the end it didn't happen. Having travelled with vegetarians in Italy I do sympathise, although actually I think it's harder to eat out as a vegetarian there than in France. Our friends became somewhat sick of pizza and pasta options - and not very exciting options either, so much so that they opted out of one dinner excursion which - Murphy's Law - turned out to be almost exclusively vegetarian . So when we were in France later on during that particular holiday, I checked out what was available there, and there were, it seemed to me, more options. Nevertheless I'm sure that many people think that the French don't do vegetables and that the Italians do.

And in recent times the Michelin people gave a vegetarian restaurant called Ona - a star. so the times are a-changing over there.

But back to classic French cuisine, which is what my son is after anyway. There are masses of side dishes made with vegetables, some of them worthy of star billing, although in my young days, living in France, the vegetables were given pride of place in that they were often served as a separate course, after the meat - not with it. And they can do wonderful things with vegetables.

Then there are quiches, soufflés, soups, salads. One of our English friends - not a vegetarian - nevertheless always chose Salade au chèvre as her appetiser. And you would not believe how many different ways this ubiquitous salad was served. It was virtually always on the menu and always different. There are omelettes - there is always an omelette on the menu and if there isn't they will always cook one for you. There are dozens of different gratins, amazing things done with asparagus, and, as well as the omelette, eggs can also be served in any number of ways. As for cheese - well France is a land of thousands of cheeses.

Of course you could probably do vegetarian versions of the classics - I saw a vegetarian Boeuf Bourguignon and a vegetarian Cassoulet somewhere, but that seems to me to be stupid. I mean they might well be tasty but calling them by the names of those classic dishes seems to completely miss the point really. It's a bit defensive I think. Why not just give it a new name - it's a new dish after all. You don't see Ottolenghi and co pretending their dishes are a classic meat dish only made with vegetables.

So choosing ratatouille as the vegetarian main dish is possibly somewhat unadventurous. We discussed various options - both for the main dish and for an entrée - and I have left a selection of French cookbooks with my daughter-in-law. I await the verdict on what to provide. But if it's ratatouille then yes, I think I'll go with Recipe Tin Eats. It seems a worthy compromise between stewing everything together and roasting in the oven.


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