Keeping vegetarian guests happy

Entertaining

Entertaining: Tarts of goat cheese, fennel, red pepper and onion make a fine meat-free first course.

March 11, 2001|By Betty Rosbottom | Betty Rosbottom,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE INTERNATIONAL

On more than one occasion I have been surprised when a guest declined a dish at one of my dinner parties. A handful of people turn down food because of serious allergies or because they are on reduced-fat diets, but most of my rejections have been from vegetarians.

It would be helpful for me, as host, to know of individual restrictions before planning a menu, but guests often want to be polite and not impose, so they neglect to mention their dietary concerns. As a consequence, I now ask those coming to our house for the first time if there is anything they do not like to eat. And I am discovering that because many of our friends have given up meat, I need more interesting vegetarian recipes in my repertoire.

By chance this past week I decided to include in a menu for weekend company some fennel, red pepper and onion tarts. I had tasted a version of these little savory pies at a French restaurant several months ago and was anxious to reproduce them in my kitchen. I cut out four-inch rounds from a sheet of store-bought puff pastry and baked them, weighted down with an extra baking sheet on top so that the dough did not rise but stayed thin and flaky.

Next, I spread the crispy, rich, golden pastry circles with a thin layer of creamy goat cheese and added sauteed fennel, sweet red peppers and onions tossed with slivered kalamata olives and a fresh herb. Only after enjoying the last morsel of these colorful and delicious tarts did it dawn on me that they would be perfect to offer as a first course when a vegetarian selection is needed.

The pastry rounds can be baked several hours ahead and the vegetables sauteed in advance as well, so that at serving time a quick reheating and assembly are all that is necessary. The tarts make an excellent vegetarian opener, or they could also be offered with a salad and soup for a light main course.

Savory Fennel, Red Pepper and Onion Tarts

Makes 4 servings

TOPPING:

1 small fennel bulb (about 10 ounces)

2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium sweet red pepper, cut into 1/2 -inch by 2-inch strips

1 medium onion, cut into 1/2 -inch-wide slices

15 pitted kalamata olives, cut into thin slivers

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

salt

2 1/2 to 3 ounces creamy goat cheese

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

2 tablespoons chopped basil or flat-leaf parsley

CRUST:

1 sheet frozen puff pastry (half of a 17 1/4 -ounce package), defrosted

butter, for greasing baking sheets

To prepare Topping, cut off long stems with lacy fronds from fennel bulb and halve bulb lengthwise. Cut out and discard tough triangular core from each half. Cut each half, lengthwise, into 1/2 -inch-wide wedges and separate wedges into individual slices.

Heat oil in large, heavy skillet over medium heat and, when hot, add red pepper and fennel slices. Saute, stirring often, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add onions and continue to cook, stirring, until onions are soft, 3 to 4 minutes more. Stir in olives and red pepper flakes. Remove from heat and season with salt to taste. (Vegetables can be prepared 3 hours ahead. Cool, cover loosely with foil and leave at room temperature. When ready to serve, reheat, stirring, over medium heat until hot.)

To prepare Crust, use 2 unrimmed baking sheets of similar size. Generously butter top of 1 sheet, then bottom of other. Using rolling pin, roll over sheet of dough several times just to stretch slightly. Cut out 4 (4- to 4 1/2 -inch) rounds. (A souffle dish, bowl or large cookie cutter can be used to cut the rounds.) Place rounds on buttered baking sheet and top with second sheet so its buttered bottom side touches dough.

Bake on center rack at 400 degrees 15 minutes, then open oven door and, using pot holders, press down on top baking sheet to compress dough. Place 1 or 2 heavy oven-proof skillets on top of baking sheet to weight down dough. Bake another 10 to 15 minutes until dough is golden-brown on top and bottom, checking every 5 minutes to make certain pastry is not getting too dark.

Remove from oven and, using metal spatula, remove rounds from sheet and cool on rack. (Pastry rounds can be baked 3 hours ahead. Leave, uncovered, at cool room temperature. When ready to serve, reheat rounds on baking sheet 3 to 5 minutes at 350 degrees.)

When ready to serve, spread each round with goat cheese and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon orange zest. Arrange sauteed vegetables on top of each tart, sprinkle with basil and serve immediately.

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