Vegetarian feasts can delight omnivores
What is it about cooking for vegetarians that stumps so many carnivores? Even those who make a sublime split pea soup or divine dal curry suddenly feel compelled to reach for the safety of Boca burgers.
Truth is, vegetarians and omnivores can dine happily together, on the same glorious feast.
When planning a dinner party that includes both vegetarians and meat-eaters, best to banish any lingering whiffs of 1970s vegetarian restaurants, with their Birkenstock-wearing servers and mushy beige food, and focus on the wow factor. And today, that couldn't be easier.
Consider aromatic, curried vegetables nestled against the black grains of forbidden rice, an exotic grain favored, according to legend, by the emperors of the Qing Dynasty. Or a hearty stew of toothsome farro, flavorful lentils and vivid orange sweet potatoes or butternut squash that gets a tangy zing from lemon zest and Greek yogurt.
In short, create a menu that offers nothing but gustatory temptation.
"I don't come to the table as a vegetarian," says Marie Simmons, the Richmond, Calif., food writer behind "Fresh and Fast Vegetarian" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $17.95). "I come to the table as someone who loves big, bold, robust flavors — curry, paprika, orange zest, lots of herbs — and I believe in abbondanza."
That's the Italian word for joyful abundance. Simmons' philosophy is that if you heap your table with beautiful, aromatic food, even die-hard steak lovers will be too delighted by the bounty to notice the absence of rib-eyes.
The issue isn't that traditional meat-eaters are anti-vegetarian, Simmons says.
"It's a fear of tofu," she says. "And they're afraid they're not going to get enough to eat." That's not a problem at Simmons's home, where vegetarian entrees are combined with sumptuous side dishes. When she's entertaining a mixed crowd, those sides include a crisp green salad, goat cheese-topped crostini and roasted Idaho or sweet potatoes, lush with melting cheese.
"Confirmed omnivores," she says, "are big potato people."
What Napa Valley food writer Janet Fletcher looks for in a vegetarian entree are the exact same things she seeks in any entree — flavor, texture, heartiness and visual appeal. And, of course, how it pairs with wine.
For heaven's sake, says the James Beard Award-winning journalist, "you don't need to announce you're serving a meatless meal."
Just think creatively.
"Dinner does not have to be animal protein, a starch and a vegetable," says Fletcher, the author of "Eating Local" (Andrews McMeel, 306 pages, $35). "Americans are not protein-deficient."
According to national statistics, Americans are notorious for their protein overconsumption, something we might blame on Dr. Atkins. And in any case, meat, tofu and beans do not hold the monopoly on protein. Whole grains and many vegetables brim with it, too. So Fletcher often uses polenta, farro, bulgur or rice as a foundation, then adds in the vegetables and cheese, either as a flavoring element or afterward, in lieu of dessert.
One of Fletcher's favorite menus includes a salad of roasted peppers and mozzarella, and a creamy farro risotto with Jerusalem artichokes and deeply browned, almost meaty mushrooms.
"It's a beautiful dish for red wine," she says.
When it comes down to it, entertaining is all about making guests feel welcomed and well-fed, no matter what their dietary preferences.
"Basically, my position is: Good food is good food," says Heidi Swanson, a San Francisco food blogger who parlayed her 101Cookbooks.com site into a new cookbook, "Super Natural Every Day" (Ten Speed Press, 250 pages, $23).
"I don't spend much time thinking about what someone typically eats," she says. "Instead, I just try to make sure whatever I'm cooking is fresh, flavorful, interesting and substantial."
That said, when you're serving a crowd, Swanson suggests including a do-it-yourself element.
"If it's a soup night, I'll put out a spread of corresponding toppings," she says. "The same works for taco fillings, waffle toppings, pizza nights, etc. That allows each person to customize things to their liking."
Have an elegant dinner party coming up? Fletcher suggests trying her party-perfect, grilled eggplant cannelloni, partly because the dish looks fabulous and tastes even better, but partly because its richly satisfying ricotta filling can be tweaked to all tastes. If you really do have a guest who would sooner die than omit meat from any meal, Fletcher suggests adding a little diced prosciutto to some of the filling and baking those cannelloni separately.
Serve it with an avocado, frisee and fennel salad, with a nice piece of blue cheese afterward. It's perfect for entertaining, she says, no matter who is at the table.