When a Vegan Comes to Dinner

July 26, 2012

Gena Hamshaw of the blog Choosing Raw eats a mostly raw, vegan diet without losing time, money, or her sanity. Let her show you how to make "rabbit food" taste delicious and satisfying every other Thursday on Food52.

Today: Entertaining a vegan friend? Worry no longer -- Gena saves the day with tips, menu ideas, and Penne with Sweet Summer Vegetables, Pine Nuts, and Herbs.

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It was bound to happen at some point. You’ve invited your new neighbors over for dinner at your place, and they just mentioned to you that they’re vegan.

So the roast chicken you were planning on making won’t work. OK, you think. Salmon will do. Except vegans eat fish? You’re not so sure. In that case, what about lasagna? Sounds great...except for the ricotta.

Maybe the best thing to do is to purchase a vegan cookbook. Fast.

If you’ve ever been in this situation, I feel your pain. I feel it not because I’ve been in it -- I’ve been vegan for as many years as I’ve been a competent enough cook to entertain--but because I’ve watched a lot of hosts and hostesses go through it when they find out I’m coming to dinner. Every time, I do my best to gently reassure my host or hostess that I don’t need any sort of special treatment. Nevertheless, I understand why my presence at the dinner table feels intimidating. For all of its popularity of late, veganism is still pretty exotic to many home cooks.

So let’s cut to the chase: what can you make for a vegan guest? What can’t you make? And -- perhaps most importantly -- what can you make that will please everyone, vegans and non-vegans alike?

Before you go crazy googling the definition of vegan diets, let me save you a little time. Veganism means no animal foods (meat, fish, shellfish, fowl, dairy, or egg) and no animal by-products (chicken or beef broth, gelatin, and honey is a matter of discretion among vegans, those most strict vegans won’t consume it). That’s what vegans don’t eat. Here’s what they do eat: all vegetables, fruits, grains (including pasta and bread), nuts, seeds, soy foods, legumes, oils, most condiments (mustard, vinegar, soy sauce), and nearly all dark chocolate that’s labeled above 60% (score!).

But the experience of cooking for vegans happily, playfully, and without stress isn’t just about knowing what’s vegan and what’s not. It’s about remembering the following things:

1. We’re probably more nervous than you are. Seriously. We cringe at the idea that we’re inconveniencing you: in fact, fear of being an imposition at dinner parties and other social events is what prevents a lot of people from going vegan! The last thing we want is to create stress for you (and other guests), so rest assured that we’ll be laid back about the whole thing.

2. You do not need to purchase tofu, seitan, tempeh, Tofurkey, Field Roast, or any other meat substitute in order to feed us. Promise. While many people associate veganism with the infamous Tofurkey, more and more vegans are putting the “veg” in vegan, and focusing in on whole foods.

3. We don’t expect you to come up with a brand new meal to make for us. It’s always a little scary to serve a dish that isn’t tried and true at a dinner party. So please, feel free to make a non-vegan entree and have a salad, some hummus appetizer, and/or guac and chips lying around. It’ll be delicious, and absolutely satisfying for us.

4. What if you’re enjoying the challenge of a meatless dinner, and you do want to create a new dish? Here are some good dishes to start with. They’re all either naturally vegan or can easily be made so.

• Curries
• Soups/stews
• Grain pilafs
• Risottos
• Pasta
• Stir fries

In general, vegan cooking is greatly enhanced by the addition of a few simple spices and herbs; try a chickpea, kale, and sweet potato stew with cumin and cinnamon, or a curry with lemongrass on for size. (And you can find many more ideas at the bottom of this post.)

5. If you’re short on time and want to keep it super simple, try pasta. Humble pasta is as cherished by vegan diners as it is by omnivores. It’s also relatively quick to make, and easy to keep seasonal. To start, you might want to play around with the following dish, which is perfect for showcasing the sweetness and beauty of summer produce. Think ratatouille meets pasta--with a little sweet corn thrown in for good measure. After you roast the veggies, putting dinner for four on the table is a breeze.

One last thing: most wine, unfortunately, isn’t technically vegan, because gelatin or isinglass is used in the refining process. A lot of vegans are flexible about their libations, but if you want to purchase a vegan wine, most kosher wines are vegan already, as are Yellowtail reds. You can get extensive information on vegan wine with a little googling--and maybe that’s something for a future post!

I hope this post shows you that there’s nothing scary about breaking bread -- or pasta -- with a plant-based eater. Use the skills you already have in your culinary arsenal, and focus in on veggies and grains. You really can’t go wrong.

Penne with Sweet Summer Vegetables, Pine Nuts, and Herbs
Serves 4
2 pints grape or cherry tomatoes 
2 ears corn, shucked and kernels cut off 
2 large zucchini or summer squash, cut into 1/2 inch thick rounds and then sliced in half 
1 large or two small red onions, chopped 
2 cloves garlic, crushed 
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided into 3 tbsp and 1 tbsp 
8 oz penne or farfalle pasta 
Coarse salt and black pepper 
1/3 cup torn basil leaves 
1 tbsp fresh oregano leaves 
Optional: 1/4 cup pine nuts

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more options for vegan diners? Try any of these vegan offerings from both FOOD52 and Choosing Raw:

Kale Salad with Sweet Apricot Vinaigrette
Sweet Pea Hummus

Gingery Pink Rice with Peas and Butternut Squash

Black Bean and Quinoa Salad with Cumin Dressing
White Bean and Summer Vegetable Pasta

Double Chocolate Cookies
Chilled Plum Soup with Cashew Cream
Peach and Blackberry Skillet Cake

Order now

The Food52 Vegan Cookbook is here! With this book from Gena Hamshaw, anyone can learn how to eat more plants (and along the way, how to cook with and love cashew cheese, tofu, and nutritional yeast).

Order now

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • mckenzie
  • Jeanne Tomlin
    Jeanne Tomlin
  • Suzanne
  • Tish
  • betul.yilmaz.92
Gena is a registered dietitian, recipe developer, and food blogger. She's the author of three cookbooks, including Power Plates (2017) and Food52 Vegan (2015). She enjoys cooking vegetables, making bread, and challenging herself with vegan baking projects.


mckenzie March 7, 2018
Just discovered your blog and pinned so many recipes! Thanks for the great tips :)
Jeanne T. October 17, 2017
No, vegan is not 'exotic'. Dream on.
Suzanne November 5, 2015
Best thing to do is not invite a Vegan to dinner. Choose another activity with your Vegan friends. And for guests who eat normally but bring a Vegan guest (and drop the bomb at the last minute), it's best to suggest the Vegan person eat prior to the dinner party. Veganism is an eating disorder.
Rebecca P. September 10, 2019
Tish April 4, 2013
Hi Gena,
My vegan daughter just convinced me to watch the documentary "Vegucation" and I'm ready to make the switch. So glad I came across your blog which I am now following and going to start using some of your recipes.
Gena H. July 3, 2013
Thanks Tish!! I'm so, so glad that your daughter got you to watch Vegucated -- it's one of my favorites!
betul.yilmaz.92 September 20, 2012
P.S. By refusing the use of durum weath I am not saying that there is not any of them made without egg, on the contrary, my cricism sipmly based upon health concerns. That is to say, durum wheat is known to be one of the most dangerous grains that is highly exposed to GDO and pesticide. Its cause cattles are also fed with variety of grains including durum wheath hence this cereal is not reagreded as an innocent food supply not only for its contaminated nature but also the more you consume durum wheat the more you unconsciously support Monsanto's deadly cycle!
betul.yilmaz.92 September 20, 2012
Corrigendum: 'cricism' should have been 'criticism'/ 'GDO' that is the abbreviated form of the term in my lang. hence that has to be 'Genetically Modified'
betul.yilmaz.92 September 20, 2012
Telling the truth I am a newbie in vegan life style though through a fastidious reserach I figured out that true vegans esp. raw vegans do not use any durum wheat and except seed or nuts' oil they also do not consume any oil. Plus frying or even slightly roasting only causes carsinogenic agents within the food.
Gena H. September 20, 2012
Hi Betul,

I appreciate your concern about genetically modified wheat from a health vantage point, but I just want to clarify that true vegans absolutely do not avoid wheat or oil as a matter of coarse. Some choose to--though it's worth noting that the anti-oil claims are very exaggerated, and that the bulk of our evidence does not support them--and that's of course an individual health choice.

But by definition, veganism itself is a lifestyle that emerges from a sense of compassion for animals. So the only thing that unites all vegans is the fact that we do not eat, wear, purchase, or use on our faces any product that is, or is derived from, an animal. As an interesting semantic side note, many vegans who are vegan primarily for health reasons choose to call themselves "plant-based eaters" instead.

As to your point about certain foods (GMO foods in particular) sometimes causing harm to animals by association, I think it's a great point, and many vegans do support only local vegetable farms to the best of their ability for this reason. But to most vegans, eating a bowl of delicious, nutrient rich vegan pasta and showing others that food can be fulfilling without directly contributing to the use or suffering of animals, even if the wheat is not ideally sourced, is a big improvement on the norm.

Thanks for reading!

betul.yilmaz.92 September 21, 2012
Hiya Gena,
Many thanks for the substantial info.yeah you are very true seems there are many perspectives and to please everyone is almost impossible. In any way-as I've stated before-I am one of those newbies hence always welcome new thoughts or critics from specialists like you! I very much appreciate the fact that you put a great effort on vegan life style&culinary. Following you both here and on facebbok!
Gena H. September 22, 2012
Thanks B! I hope you get inspired to make a lot of tasty food :)
Kassie July 29, 2012
I don't understand your comment that vegans eat pasta and bread. I have never seen pasta made without eggs and the same is true for bread.
creamtea July 29, 2012
Respectfully disagree: I have in my pantry packaged spaghetti, ditalini, and penne made with only durum and water, and have a bread-baking book with recipes for baguettes, pains de compagne and ciabatta, among quite a few others, made without eggs.
Gena H. July 29, 2012
Hi Kassie,

Plenty of whole grain breads and even white breads are made without egg; even in restaurants! Usually waitstaff will know, and in stores you can absolutely avoid the egg by checking labels.

As for pasta, most dry pasta is actually egg free, including major commercial brands (De Cecco, for example). Again, you can peruse labels, but it's possible!

stee August 20, 2012
I agree, Kassie. My nephew is a vegan and it is so hard to find a place to eat with him. We thought Italian would be the way to go but he said that all restaurants use egg in their pasta and that all the boxed pasta has egg in it too even though the box doesn't say it does.

It's frustrating to say the least. Because you want him to eat and enjoy himself . But it turns into a production calling places and then he sits glumly with the garden salad without dressing.
Gena H. September 20, 2012
Hey Stee,

Just a word on vegan dining out: Thai, Japanese, Indian, and most ethiopian is usually very easy as a vegan! And at Italian places, my favorite thing to do is to request a big grilled veggie plate with marinara sauce on the side for dipping, along with a salad. It's usually quite easy to have this!

fhp July 29, 2012
I have gone from a Raw Vegan (2 years) to a moderate vegan mostly because I was turning into a sociopath and just didn't accept dinner invitations anymore. I liked the way I felt in general but I hated all the fuss that people made about it. My solution is just make sure there is a nice (big) fresh salad whenever you have guests over. A pea pod and a tendril with scattered mint leaves is pretty but....
Raw Vegans get hungry too. A bowlful of any grain, quinoa, farro, brown rice (cooked) simply prepared is a good thing to have on hand as well.
Green F. July 27, 2012
Wonderful column, congrats! Can I ask what (gluten-free please!) penne you used / recommend ? Thanks!
Gena H. July 27, 2012
Tinkyada brown rice pasta is absolutely amazing! My go to. It's truly far tastier than regular whole grain penne, and brown rice based.
SaraVino July 27, 2012
What a fantastic article! That pasta looks absolutely delicious. Gena, are you familiar with the website Check it out if not! It's my go-to resource for finding vegan-friendly booze!
Gena H. July 29, 2012
Yes! Totally amazing resource.
creamtea July 27, 2012
I made a version of this for dinner last night, made on the stovetop instead of roasted in the oven (will do that when it's a little cooler) and everyone loved it. Upped the garlic, added red bell pepper. Very tasty; everyone loved it! The official recipe page doesn't list the 1/3 cup of fresh basil, however.
Nozlee S. July 27, 2012
That measure has been fixed, thanks for pointing it out!
Benny July 26, 2012
as an avid meat eater, I am still always looking at different vegan recipes to have as a light lunch or snack, or even as sides. Thanks for a good handful of new recipes!
Gena H. July 26, 2012
Thank you so much, Benny! The whole purpose of this column is to break down some of the unnecessary divisions between omnivorous and plant based eating. Glad you're getting ideas!
Nozlee S. July 26, 2012
SO interesting about vegan wines, I had no idea. And I have to share how much we loved making this pasta in the test kitchen -- we "taste-tested" it until the bowl was empty!
Gena H. July 26, 2012
Crazy, no? Guiness isn't vegan, either. Vegan wines are increasingly labeled as such, but it's definitely something for us all to keep talking about.