Mediterranean meals mix vibrant flavors in simple dish

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

CONCORD, N.H. -- Vegetarian cooking is at its best when it is at its simplest.

Rather than laboring over complicated recipes, treat diners to a hearty but simple Mediterranean meal of tomato crostini, stuffed grape leaves and pasta and bean soup.

Plan to make the grape leaves first, and the other two items as mealtime nears, then serve everything at once.

For the soup: Fill a medium stockpot halfway with vegetable broth, then add a can of crushed tomatoes, a can of navy or kidney beans, a diced onion, a bit of crushed garlic and two cups of small dry pasta shells.

Season to taste with salt and black pepper, add a few tablespoons of olive oil and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and simmer, covered, until the pasta is tender. Serve hot on a chilly night, or slightly cooled on a warm spring evening.

Accompany it with marinated tomato crostini. Dice several tomatoes and sprinkle with salt, black pepper and red wine or cider vinegar. Toss to combine then transfer to a mesh strainer to drain. Let sit over the sink for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, slice a baguette into half-inch slices, drizzle with olive oil and toast in the oven until just crispy. Top each baguette slice with about two teaspoons of the prepared tomato.

The stuffed leaves can be tricky to wrap at first, so it's a good idea to buy extra leaves for practice.

Mediterranean Stuffed Grape Leaves

2 cups vegetable stock

1 cup brown rice

1 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup grated radish

1/3 cup chopped scallions

1/2 cup minced celery

3/4 cup chopped fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional for baking

2 teaspoons white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons lemon juice, plus additional for baking

1/3 cup currants or golden raisins

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon capers

36 grape leaves

Roughly 100 chive stalks

Bring the stock to a boil in a medium pot. Add the rice and salt. Reduce heat and simmer, covered with a tight-fitting lid, for 45 minutes. When all the water is absorbed, remove the rice from the heat and fluff with a fork.

In a large bowl, combine the rice and all ingredients except the grape leaves, chives, and additional olive oil and lemon juice. Toss well to combine.

To make the rolls, have a medium bowl of hot water ready. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

One at a time, spread the grape leaves on a flat, dry surface. Remove any stems. Spread 1 1/2 tablespoons of the rice mixture at the base (near the stem). Fold the outer leaf edges in, then roll up.

To tie, take three 5-inch-long chive stalks and briefly soak them in the bowl of hot water to make them more pliable. Using the three stalks as one, tie them around the rolled grape leaves.

Arrange the completed grape leaves in a casserole dish. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice, making sure each grape leaf gets a bit of each.

Cover with foil and bake for 10 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

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