Monday, 23 January 2017

How to host a vegetarian dinner party (even if your guests eat meat)

I love to cook.
This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who reads this blog.
I also love to have people over for dinner. 
But I also find it quite stressful.

I've talked before about how Phil and I live together as a veggie and a meat-eater and how we manage it just fine, but as soon as I have guests over I panic!

I worry about not serving meat, I worry that my guests expect meat and I worry they'll disappointed when meat isn't on the menu.
And I feel that I have to prove that vegetarian food is delicious.

I spend a lot of time thinking of what would be "suitable" for guests.

(A meal being "something I'd serve to guests" is pretty much the highest honour I can bestow upon a dish).

I fear the gap on the plate where meat "should" go. 

The reality is, I worry way more about this than my guests do, I know I'm a good cook and I'm going to do my best to make something delicious and flavoursome and enjoyable, but I still worry about people thinking, "oh God, dinner at Charlotte and Phil's tonight. Vegetarian food is so bland." (I don't really think any of my guests have ever thought this...)

So here are my tips for hosting a dinner party where (hopefully!) nobody misses the meat...

1. Don't try to replicate meat
We don't eat a lot of meat substitutes at home anyway, but I especially don't like the idea of giving meat eaters "fake meat." I might think Quorn tastes exactly like chicken, or that my seitan loaf is exactly like meat, but I haven't eaten meat for 15 years, so what do I know? I feel like having guests over is about trying to "prove" that veggie food is delicious, and trying to replicate meat feels like a one-way ticket to "would have been nice with actual meat."

2. Consider one-pot dishes with side dishes
I'm a big fan of a casserole. Maybe it's the idea that I could totally see Nigella dishing out a big steaming casserole with a gorgeous green salad on the side, or maybe it's that I just like the idea of everyone helping themselves, but I love that a casserole also means you can bang it in the oven and socialise without worrying about standing over the stove all evening! It also removes my fear of the "meat gap". My favourite is Anna Jones' Tomato and Coconut Cassoulet with a salad or roasted broccoli.

3. Make meals that don't normally contain meat
Mac and cheese is one of my go-to dinner party dishes because it's naturally meat-free. I hate the idea of feeling like there's something "missing". I almost never eat pasta (nothing against pasta - it's just not my favourite) but pasta or risotto are easy dishes for dinner parties that most people love, regardless of whether they contain meat. I swear Anna Jones isn't sponsoring me here, but I love her one-pot spaghetti, and Nigella's sweet potato mac and cheese is my favourite of every mac and cheese I've tried.

4. Tapas-style dishes 
Another style of cooking I love, although it is labour-intensive, is doing lots of little dishes for sharing, which again removes the "missing meat" feeling, but also means you could make a meat dish if you wanted to.
We had guests over a few weeks ago and I made a few dishes from The Greek Vegetarian - we had giant beans with tomato, dill and honey, whipped feta with garlic and mint, pilaf with bulghar wheat and chickpeas, a big Greek salad and homemade pitta. Everything was so delicious (even if I do say so myself! I was really proud!) and there was such a selection that everyone was happy.

5. Serve everything family style
I very rarely "serve" meals when I have guests over because I like to let people help themselves. Everyone has different preferences on how and how much they like to eat, and this way nobody goes hungry, feels overfaced or feels awkward asking for seconds!

6. Choose a theme
Most of the time I like to have a theme to my dinner parties - Mexican, Indian, Greek etc. I like some homogeneity between courses and having a theme is a good way to make sure everything flows. It also makes it easier for me to come up with a menu plan!

7. Ask about allergies but not dislikes
I have a habit of getting myself a bit wound up and asking my guests absolutely everything they like and dislike, which means I get very stressed out trying to find a recipe that is both meat-free and doesn't contain mushrooms/courgettes/aubergine/whatever it is my guests don't like! Other times I've completely made a rod for my own back by suggesting ideas to my guests and asking for feedback. Don't do it! It makes you feel like a restaurant, and totally takes the fun out of it! Check about allergies and intolerances, but cook what you want to cook, ensuring there's enough variety if there's a chance your guests might be more selective.

8. Make ahead what you can
For our last dinner party, Phil and I spent the night before preparing and it was definitely a good idea on the night. Phil made a cheesecake the night before, and I made my homemade pitta and giant beans, which both took over an hour and a half. I'd so not rather leave my guests waiting and be stressed on the night! Most veggie casseroles can be made ahead and refrigerated at the point before they need to go in the oven.

9. Ideally, make something you've made before
Admittedly, my giant Greek feast was all new-to-me recipes, but generally, I try to make something I know well (see, mac and cheese) just to alleviate the stress and help me to feel more confident! As I said before, I have a list of recipes I've made that I've deemed "guest-worthy" so it's easy to look through that for inspiration.

10. Don't raise your standards too high
I stress out so much about cooking for people, but for the most part, your guests are probably pretty happy that they're getting a free meal, so don't worry if it doesn't all go perfectly. If you're unsure, play it safe with something simple. Going complex only works if you know it's not going to go wrong! 

11. Don't apologise!
I feel like I apologise too much for there not being any meat, but I know I'm a pretty good cook and I will have made a lot of effort to make a great meal for my guests, with or without meat. I'm one of those extra-apologetic people who can't take a compliment ("oh this is really nice" "oh yeah well I forgot the peppers and then I burned the onions and then...") so this one is hard for me, but like above, most people are pretty happy to have a free, homecooked meal and good company, so don't apologise for your hard work!

Here are some of my favourite recipes for having guests over (note: some of these are from recipe books so I can't republish them but I've tried to give links where I can!):

Mint and pea risottto from Keep it Vegan
Tomato and coconut cassoulet
Sweet potato mac and cheese
Tex Mex risotto from Vegan Bowls
Tabbouleh with houmous and halloumi
Moroccan stew from Keep it Vegan
Lemon and Kale Spaghetti
Giant beans, whipped feta, chickpea pilaf and Greek salad from The Greek Vegetarian
Mushroom walnut pate from Veganomicon
Chilli paneer from The Very Hungry Baker
Dal with sweet potatoes
Spicy aubergine and courgette from Vegan Bowls
Tamarind lentils, spinach and tomatoes and Indian tofu from Veganomicon
Breakfast burritos from Minimalist Baker's Everyday Cooking

Having guests over for dinner is one of my favourite things - I love to put work into something that I know will be worth the effort, and I love a quiet night in with drinks and food and a board game or two! I just need to remember to take my own advice and stress a little bit less!

Charlotte x

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