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When a Vegan Comes to Dinner

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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.

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 wait...do 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

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Corn, Tomato, Vegetable, Whole Wheat, Zucchini, Vegan, Raw Food, Burnt Toast Dinner Brigade, Gena Hamshaw