When I've had to cook for vegetarian friends in the past, I used to think, "What a pain in the butt." (Well, I'm quite an omnivore, and I guess I was being boneheaded and selfish ...)

Now I see it as a creative challenge, and since I have more and more friends who are avoiding eating meat (which is a good idea sometimes), I enjoy cooking them delicious, creative dishes which fit in with their diets.

I've had several requests for a vegetarian jambalaya, and I've sorta winged it in the past, leaving the meat and seafood out of my main jambalaya recipes, but I thought it'd be convenient if I got something consistent written down.

I watched one of my favorite chefs, Emeril Lagasse, make a neat-looking vegetarian jambalaya on his show "The Essence of Emeril" on The Food Network, was inspired as always, nicked a few of his ideas, combined them with a few of mine, and we gave this a try. It's pretty good!

The mixture of vegetables presented here is a suggestion, but what goes into it is entirely up to you -- when I adapted my own jambalaya recipe in the past, I'd add carrots, zucchini, squash, or whatever was on hand. The eggplant idea, which came from Chef Emeril, was a terrific idea. Change, substitute ... this dish has LOTS of room for improvisation and creativity.

Since I'm a New Orleanian, I've made this jambalaya Creole-style, with a tomato base. If you want to make a country-style jambalaya, omit the tomato paste, and even the tomatoes if you're really hard-core country.

Heat the oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add the onions, shallots, bell peppers and garlic and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the eggplant, squash, and zucchini, and saute until they're tender, ahother 5 minutes or so. Add the tomatoes. Season with salt, Creole seasoning and additional cayenne if desired. Add the bay leave, then add the rice and stir for 2 to 3 minutes.

If you're making this Creole-style, heat the tomato paste in a non-stick pan and stir, making sure it doesn't stick or burn, until the sugars in the paste begin to caramelize, and the paste begins to turn a deep mahogany color. Deglaze with some of the stock, stir and combine thoroughly, then add the tomato paste to the rest of the stock and stir until well-blended.

Add the vegetable stock/tomato mixture, stir and cover. Cook for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the rice is tender and the liquid has been absorbed. Do not stir the jambalaya while it's cooking. Remove from heat and let stand for 2-3 minutes. Add the green onions and mix thoroughly.

Garnish with some fresh long chives, and serve with a salad and good beer.

Yield: 12 generous servings  

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Chuck Taggart   email chuck (at) gumbopages (dot) com