When it comes to fine dining, meat and cheese do not equal elegance. Most would agree that it’s the candles, flowers, music, and service, as well as the menu that constitutes an elegant affair. Once your attention turns toward food possibilities, remember all the hundreds of ingredients you can include in place of animal products. Let’s look at just a few ideas.
A Phoenix, Arizona newspaper in July 1999 published a feature called “Meatless Matrimony” in which resort chefs from the Phoenix, Scottsdale, and Tempe area shared their recipes and ideas for “vegan elegance,” including baby green salad with borscht pears and raspberry balsamic vinaigrette, grilled portobello mushrooms on tomato focaccia, and crepes stuffed with wild mushrooms and Mediterranean eggplant with barley risotto.
Ideas abound! How about a cold Babcock peach soup or cheesecake (made with tofu) with a Chambord liqueur sauce or honeydew sorbet, cantaloupe in Champagne sauce, or vanilla bean sponge cake with raspberry coulis. As far as the infamous lentil loaf that seemed to be the mainstay of veggie entrées, add a few ingredients and you have a lentil paté, the rival of traditional animal-based patés. Grilled mushroom caps are sturdy stand-ins for grilled steaks or chops. Raw vegetables are colorful simply sliced, or carve them into flowers and figures to be mini-works of art. Breads can be flavored (for example, dinner rolls flavored with saffron, rosemary, or cracked pepper) and twisted into braids, knots, and figures. If you don’t have the staff to do this type of preparation from scratch, there are fresh and frozen vegan convenience items (including carved vegetables) you can purchase and assemble.
Mushrooms fit perfectly into upscale vegan menus (see below for mushroom marinating ideas). Mushrooms generally have a mild flavor and respond well to seasoning. Large mushrooms, such as portobellos, giant button, lobster, and porcini lend themselves to baking, roasting, and grilling. Offer a mushroom “steak” or a mixed mushroom grill as an entrée served on a bed of herbed rice, paired with garlic, black beans, and fresh corn, or as an open-faced sandwich, layered with shredded salad greens, sliced onions, and tomatoes on a crusty sourdough roll or baguette.
Smaller mushrooms can be chopped and used for texture and flavoring. A duxelle is a combination of mushrooms and shallots (or onions) chopped finely enough to resemble a paste. This earthy, tasty ingredient can be used to flavor stuffing, pilafs, soups, and cooked grains, or can be served as an elegant spread for hot or cold appetizers. Spread duxelle on Melba toast or matzo, then top with chopped olives, capers, and chopped pimentos for a colorful appetizer. Or stir some duxelle into canned mushroom soup (use blended tofu instead of water or milk) to create a thick, flavorful creamy soup which can also be used as a mushroom sauce. Stuff tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, and even more mushrooms with plain duxelle or duxelle mixed with cooked rice, barley, or stuffing. Bake and serve with a mushroom sauce.
Mushroom gravy can be made by purchasing mushroom broth or using the liquid from soaking dried mushrooms. Sauté sliced mushrooms and onions and add to heated broth. Thicken with cornstarch and allow the mixture to simmer until the flavors meld. You can also purée soaked dried mushrooms with sautéed onions and tofu to make a creamy mushroom gravy.
Canapés, bite-sized open-faced sandwiches, are the perfect palette for international vegetarian flavors. Use different breads and spreads to represent different parts of the world. Pita, tortillas, phyllo dough cut into small “puffs,” polenta squares grilled or roasted, Lebanese cracker bread, blinis (small buckwheat pancakes, traditionally served with sour cream and caviar), and Norwegian flat bread are just some of the breads you can use to carry different types of savory spreads. Consider focaccia with rosemary, oregano, and garlic oil, polenta squares with sun-dried tomatoes, tortillas with veggie carnitas (i.e., shredded Tofurky), or mini bagels with cucumber and dill cream cheese and smoked tofu.
To top canapés, flavor soy cream cheese, plain soy yogurt, or soy sour cream with cilantro, chilies, capers, sweet onions, soy sausage or smoked tofu, smoked mushrooms, pimientos, cornichons (spicy, small pickles from France), smoked, grilled tempeh, and olives.
Hummus is a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cold sauce/dip made of mashed garbanzo beans, tahini (sesame seed paste), garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, and cayenne. You can prepare your own or purchase some premade. Today, companies are offering flavored hummus, adding roasted peppers, roasted garlic, olives, and other savory flavors. Babaganouj resembles hummus, but is made with roasted eggplant purée instead of garbanzos. Both can have less fat than traditional dips made with dairy sour cream or mayonnaise and are still creamy and spicy. Eggplant caviar is made by roasting eggplant, then mashing it and mixing it with sautéed onions, peppers, and garlic. Serve these dips as toppings for canapés, dips for vegetables and breads, or as ingredients for layered dips.
The fryer does not get time off for vegetarian catering. Maintain a balance of healthy foods by adding just a few fried items to the menu. Tempura, egg rolls, and spring rolls are quick to make and do well on reception tables. Both frozen tempura and tempura batter mix can be purchased. Green beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, zucchini, and peppers are great for tempura. While egg rolls are fried and spring rolls are usually steamed, they can share the same fillings. Offer a variety of dipping sauces, including miso, soy sauce, hot sauces flavored with chilies and ginger, and mustards.
Central American flavors are especially popular and can be used to enliven plain foods. Different types of salsa, such as salsa verde made with tomatillos and green chilies, or roasted mango chili can be used on crudite (crunchy vegetable) platters for color and flavor. Mini enchiladas, quesadillas, or chilies rellenos add color and crunch to catered receptions. Imagine an hors d’oeuvre bar of mini spring rolls and egg rolls with assorted dipping sauces, mini-pita filled with falafel and grilled vegetables along with assorted flavors of hummus, as well as mini-burritos and vegan quesadillas with a variety of salsas.
Many chefs are letting their imaginations run wild with upscale vegetarian catering. For example, Chef Louis Lanza, owner of Josie’s Restaurant in New York City, New York, offers a paté of lentils with toasted walnuts and bay leaves on endive; chickpea soup with organic baby greens salad, heirloom tomatoes, and toasted soy nuts; seared tofu cutlet in an orange chipotle glaze with mushrooms, butternut squash, and wheatberries; and rice ice cream sundae with sliced bananas and caramelized cane sugar for both restaurant and catering clientele.
Since menus need to be varied and interesting, with a variety of colors, textures, flavors, and temperatures, prepare several menus for clients to choose from, ranging from simple and traditional to ethnic and cutting edge. Give your clients some room for selection, remembering that you will be the one preparing and serving the meal. The caterer ultimately gets the kudos or the thumbs down. Know which of your food items will work for a plated (seated service) menu and which will fare well on a buffet. Keep in mind that marinated and grilled portobello steaks may not hold up well when exposed to heat for an extended amount of time on a buffet line. On the other hand, your wild rice and pimento stuffed mushroom caps can handle sustained heat. If your client would like mushrooms on the buffet, you can suggest a portobello station, with a food preparer making the portobellos to order. This will require additional labor and equipment. You will need to calculate the additional c ost for this and explain it to your client.
Here are a few more menu ideas for vegan catered events. You can select several for a plated meal or choose more for a buffet:
Breads: Bruschetta topped with fresh herbs, olives, or tomatoes, plain or flavored cornbread (chili, bell pepper, dried tomatoes, olives), garlic bread, polenta rolls, pita breads, flavored tortillas (spinach, blue corn, whole wheat), cracker bread, potato breads, sweet scones flavored with berries or citrus, and savory scones flavored with herbs or sun-dried tomatoes
Salads: Marinated antipasto, white or black bean salads, Asian cabbage salad, tabouli, cold couscous with vegetables or dried fruit, Japanese seaweed salad, tomato and fresh basil, fresh, grilled, or marinated mushrooms, seasonal fruit salad, baby greens, arugula, or endive salads, romaine and croutons (vegan Caesar), spinach and mandarin oranges, and three-colored pasta or Peruvian purple potato salad with olive oil and herbed vinegar
Soups: Cold cucumber, avocado, beet, or gazpacho, hot miso, wild mushroom, winter squash, potato and leek, white minestrone, tomato basil, corn or potato chowder, sweet potato bisque, and roasted pepper
Entrées: Spinach lasagna, ratatouille (eggplant stew), vegetable and tofu brochettes, portobello “steaks,” eggplant parmesan, stuffed sweet onions or peppers, pasta primavera, tofu tetrazzini, onion tarts, stuffed sweet onions, tomatoes, or peppers, and Thai or Indian vegetable curries
Side Dishes or Hot Appetizers: Samosas, falafel, or empanadas, rice, quinoa, or barley pilaf, roasted seasonal vegetables, miniature tomato or onion tarts, snow peas with pine nuts, stuffed grape leaves, grilled or stuffed mushrooms, stuffed potatoes, and roasted or stuffed sweet potatoes
Desserts: Baked or poached apples, pears, and peaches, sorbet assortment, miniature banana splits or sundaes, assorted vegan cookies, and nuts, miniature fruit tarts, or tofu cheesecake
Catering is about showmanship. In addition to preparing wonderfully tasty food, a caterer needs to set a beautiful table. You can use food ingredients, such as fresh herbs, edible flowers, and fresh fruit and vegetables along with breads as centerpieces and table accents. Be sure to assemble foods so that they catch the eye. For example, you can set out bowls of various dips around the table with colorful platters of vegetable chips, seasoned breadsticks, and crunchy fresh vegetables. For additional pizzaz, create a layered dip (for example, refried beans covered with guacamole, then vegan sour cream, etc.).
You get the idea! The buffet or banquet table can be your own palette with food ingredients serving as the paint. To cater any event you need to know your client expectations, the time schedule, your employees’ strengths, and how to come in on budget.
Mushroom Marinating Ideas
Below are some marinating ideas for mushrooms. To a small amount of oil, add some of the following herbs. Allow mushrooms to marinate for at least 2 hours, and then grill, sauté, barbecue, or bake them.
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