Entertaining season is upon us! If you are planning to have guests for the upcoming holidays, you may know that some are vegetarian…or you may be ready to make the leap away from meat-centric meals. But it’s not always easy to figure out how to plan a vegetarian or almost-vegetarian meal.
The truth is dishes made with vegetables, fruits and whole grains can be indulgent, satisfying and delicious. Cooking this way allows you to be more creative than you’ve ever been in your meal preparation and presentation…and it can get you out of the holiday rut of making the same-old, same-old roast or bird year after year.
Bottom Line Personal asked best-selling cookbook author Bruce Weinstein how to approach holiday meal planning so that it will be satisfying and healthy for all of your guests…
Shift your perspective. Think of produce and whole grains as a main course, not just a side dish or an accompaniment to meat or poultry.
Don’t try to fool your guests. Forget trying to fake the taste buds by serving Tofurky or other imitation products, which give vegetarian foods a bad reputation. Vegetarian dishes are more flavorful and textured than these imitations.
Use fresh produce and herbs as much as possible. You’ll enjoy cooking and experimenting with fresh ingredients, and the results will be better.
Find outstanding cookbooks and recipes to give you a head start. Cookbook authors have done most of the work for you—you just have to follow the directions. Important: Test out a recipe before including it on a menu for guests. Also: Read your recipe many times to make sure you know what ingredients you need (you may need to go to a specialty market such as Whole Foods) and what you need to do.
Do your prep work before you start cooking—maybe even the day before, so you don’t encounter any surprises on the day of your party. Example: Wash, dry, peel and chop all vegetables as needed first, not as you progress through the recipe, and pull out all the spices you need from your pantry.
Know your guests. Don’t apologize for cooking a vegetarian meal. You don’t even have to announce that the meal is vegetarian, unless you know vegetarians or vegans are coming and they need to be assured they won’t be served animal products. But: Have a backup plan if you suspect some guests won’t eat vegetables. Example: My 16-year-old niece refuses to eat vegetarian meals, so I make sure I have ground beef or turkey and eggs in the refrigerator to quickly cook up a burger or an omelet for her.
Plan a balanced meal. Consider serving a small starter—salad and/or soup—then a pasta for an entrée course. Think outside the box. Example: Pasta is a staple of many vegetarian diets, but it doesn’t have to be traditional and topped with tomato sauce. Examples: I make a lasagna with leeks and gorgonzola cheese as well as a fig-and-olive ravioli baked in a cardamom cream sauce that even meat-centric guests rave over.
Cater to your guests in other ways. Serve foods and beverages you know they love, including fun cocktails and quality wines…freshly baked breads or rolls with extra-virgin olive oil and herbed butter…and favorite desserts. You also can offer a cheese, olive and charcuterie platter as an hors d’oeuvre to ease carnivores into the meatless meal.
Try these two recipes as a starter and an entrée for your almost-vegetarian dinner party. Best: Plate the courses and bring them out after all the guests are seated at the table rather than serving them family-style—it makes the meal more special and allows you to present each dish as a little work of art.
Jerusalem Artichoke Fritters with Cranberries and Almonds
These crunchy, flavorful fritters make a great holiday starter. Prep: You can make the batter up to 30 minutes in advance. Cover and let it stand at room temperature. Alternatively, you can make the fritters a day ahead of your holiday meal and re-crisp them in the oven or an air fryer right before you serve them. Makes six servings.
- 1 pound Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes), scrubbed but not peeled
- 3 large eggs, room temperature and lightly beaten in a small bowl
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- ½ cup fresh cranberries, chopped
- ½ cup sliced almonds, toasted
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 Tablespoons yellow cornmeal
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Olive oil (for deep frying, 2 to 3 cups)
1. Shred the Jerusalem artichokes through the large holes of a box grater and into a large bowl. Stir in the eggs, scallions, cranberries, almonds, flour, cornmeal, caraway seeds, salt and pepper to form a thick but evenly mixed batter.
2. Pour one inch of oil into a large, high-sided sauté pan. Clip a deep-frying thermometer to the inside of the pan, and heat the oil over medium heat to 350°F.
3. Scoop up one-quarter cup of batter, plop it into the hot oil, and flatten it into a half-inch-thick patty using the bottom of a measuring cup. Add other patties, but don’t crowd the pan. Cook patties until browned and crisp, about six minutes, turning once. Adjust the burner heat to keep the oil’s temperature constant. Use a slotted spatula to transfer patties to a wire rack set over paper towels. Continue frying the rest of the patties.
4. Serve two fritters over a bed of applesauce to each guest.
Zucchini Casserole with Mashed Potatoes
This dish is a vegetarian version of shepherd’s pie—and the portion sizes are large, so you likely will have leftovers. The mashed potatoes are an expected side for the holidays and a crowd pleaser. Prep: You can prepare the eggplant slices and zucchini mixture up to 24 hours ahead of your party. Cover them tightly, and keep them refrigerated in the interim. Makes eight servings.
- 3 large eggplants (about 1 pound each) stemmed, peeled if you prefer and cut into ¼- to ½-inch slices
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing and brushing
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- 2 large zucchinis (about 10 ounces each), shredded through the large holes of a box grater and squeezed to remove excess moisture
- 1½ cups dry red wine (such as a
- 1⁄3 cup tomato paste
- 2 Tablespoons minced dill fronds
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2½ pounds russet (baking) potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2⁄3 cup regular or light coconut milk
- 2⁄3 cup vegetable broth
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups chopped toasted walnuts
1. Position the racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven. Heat to 375°F.
2. Grease two large-rimmed baking sheets with oil. Lay the eggplant slices evenly across them. Brush the slices with oil, turn them over and brush the other side. Bake slices until tender, about 20 minutes.
3. Transfer cooked slices to a wire rack to cool.
4. Leave the oven on, and move one of the racks to the center.
5. Set a large saucepan over medium heat for a few minutes, then pour in two tablespoons of olive oil. Add onion and cook, stirring often until softened, about four minutes. Add zucchini shreds, and cook for two minutes, stirring frequently.
6. Pour in wine. Stir in tomato paste, dill and cinnamon. Bring to a full simmer, then cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes.
7. Set up a vegetable steamer over one to two inches of simmering water. Add potatoes, cover and steam until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the pot, and transfer potatoes to a large bowl. While they are still hot, use a potato masher or electric mixer at medium speed to mash potatoes with the coconut milk, broth, salt and pepper until creamy.
8. Build the casserole. Lay one-third of eggplant slices in a 9-x-13-inch baking dish, overlapping them a little bit but creating an even layer. Top with half of the zucchini mixture, then half of the walnuts, another layer of eggplant slices, the other half of the zucchini mixture and the rest of the walnuts. Top with the remaining eggplant slices and smooth the mashed potatoes over the casserole.
9. Bake casserole until bubbling and slightly browned, about 45 minutes. Cool for five minutes before bringing it to the table or dishing up individual servings.