IT'S NO LONGER UNUSUAL to invite company for dinner and discover that at least one guest is a vegetarian. (I mean, it's been common for a while -- it's been 16 years since Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus burst on the scene -- but when you're all dabbling in trends, sometimes it's easy to forget who's into what.) Most hapless hosts immediately begin babbling about brown rice and zucchini, or spinach lasagna, but, in fact, vegetarian dishes need not be bland, safe combinations of the vegetable drawer and the carbo shelf.
Consider the exotic sweet-hot tang of a broiled hot banana pepper stuffed with mashed ripe banana and topped with caramelized brown sugar. Or a mixed charcoal grill of oil-brushed eggplant, sweet pepper, sweet potato, mushroom, zucchini and red onion. Or acorn squash filled with curried rice and glazed with chutney. Or blanched cabbage leaves stuffed with mushroom and blue cheese. Or the Gloria Vanderbilt rich-and-thinning baby cauliflower braised over fennel.
So stop treating your vegetarian friends like couch potatoes, and repeat after me: Anything Euell can do, I can do better. There are a few general rules worth remembering about purist vegetarian cuisine. First and foremost, go easy on the salt. Veggies, being more delicate than meats, take notably less seasoning; and besides, a palate accustomed to such dishes will be especially sensitive to salt.
Similarly, avoid heavy, dominating oils in favor of lighter ones that do double duty as seasonings -- basil and hazelnut oils in particular seem to tiptoe where olives tread. Swear undying affection for Italian dry vermouth, which burns out its alcoholic calories while bequeathing not only its herbs but its aroma to any dish.
There are many entire cuisines that are experienced in the ways of vegetarianism. Some of the most exquisite Indian curries -- potato and green pea, for example -- and African peanut stews fit the bill; so do risottos and pilafs and most pastas, not to mention fruit glazes and that new cornucopia, the baked potato.
You also can look East for inspiration. Oriental food is traditionally thrifty with meats, and with the substitution of soy products (bean curd cakes or miso pastes) for meat or fish protein, Chinese cuisine is low-cal, low-carbo and high profile.
But try to wok on the wild side. Many of the crunchiest vegetables that are texturally suited to stir-frying need encouragement in the flavor department, so experiment with spices and peppers, gingers and garlics, daikon radishes, pungent dried mushrooms and signature herbs such as Japanese shiso ("beefsteak plant"), coriander and Thai lemon grass.
Composed salads are a safe bet, but they also tend to turn wimpy. Make the acquaintance of the sharper leaves -- radicchio, chicory, arugula -- and use a mix of colors and textures to make the whole more interesting. In addition, don't forget that some of those same greens, especially Belgian endive and leeks, make unexpectedly effective side dishes cooked.
A dish I call mini choufleur with fennel makes a great company dish because it's so attractive -- in fact, it was invented last Thanksgiving as a festive offering for a teetotaling, non-octo, non-dairy vegetarian -- but it's also a delicate change of pace.. It's intended to showcase the fist-sized baby whole cauliflower now available at trendier stores, but you could substitute a well-shaped regular head of cauliflower and cake-slice it at the table.
If you own a deep-sided skillet or paella pan, this can be cooked and served in a single dish. First, slice a couple of bulbs of fennel and a couple of firm white onions and saute' in basil oil, tossing often, until soft but not colored. Add a little salt and a tablespoon of dried basil and toss a minute more. Set aside.
Trim each cauliflower of its hard stem and any thick, fibrous outer leaves. Leave the thinner inner leaves, especially those that twirl up together at the top like an elf's cap. Nestle the individual cauliflower heads into the fennel bed, and add liquid until it covers the bottom third of the cauliflower heads. (For the stock, try any combination of vermouth or white wine, the liquid from bottled vegetables such as pearl onions or finger carrots or -- in an emergency -- mint tea.)
Braise only a few minutes, until the cauliflower just yield to a knife -- they should still be mildly crunchy. Use a slotted spoon and serve each whole head on a cushion of braised fennel.