It's common to have a wedding banquet, business luncheon, company picnic, or a children's party where a non-vegetarian menu is offered and only five or six vegetarian meals are requested. This scenario can be challenging for the food service operator. It's certainly easier to prepare two hundred vegetarian entrées or fifty non-vegetarian desserts. It becomes more difficult when you're trying to please a mixed audience. And it's even harder when there's been no prior notification of "special" meal requests.
There are many techniques for handling situations requiring just a few vegetarian meals. If it is a catered event or a large party where reservations are needed, be sure your catering sales person, contact person, or reservationist has been instructed to ask about any special requests. If it is an "off-site" catered event, you need to ensure that customers understand that you won't be able to accommodate special requests without twenty-four hours notice. After all, if you're dishing up a one hundred-person wedding buffet in a park, you can't pull a special meal out of the back of your catering truck.
But, let's say you haven't received any kind of notice, and you suddenly need a vegetarian meal. You've got some options, depending on your type of food service. Emphasize simplicity. Pretend you don't have many pots or much refrigerator space. Prepare dishes as if they were going to be eaten by vegan, allergic-to-nuts, gluten-intolerant, or "no MSG" customers. This type of base preparation can be built upon for customers who would like a little more. Take a Greek salad, for example. Shred the greens, slice the cucumbers and olives, dice the bell peppers and onions, and toss the olive oil with a bit of vinegar and shredded fresh oregano. Toss all the ingredients together, add a grind or two of black pepper, and you've got a basic Greek salad that you can serve to everyone. Chopped eggs and the anchovies can always be tossed in for the non-vegetarians that want them, but you'll do that without having to make three or four different bowls of salad.
Vegetarian entrées are easily prepared from the ingredients you already have in your walk-ins and storeroom. Pasta, rice, barley, couscous, beans and legumes, and potatoes can all form a base for vegetarian entrées. There are nontraditional ingredients to incorporate, too, such as tofu or seitan; decide if you have the time to train your staff and educate your customers about them. The key is to design a menu that as many people as possible will accept.
The amount of time and money you have for your vegetarian effort is cruicial. The easiest way, but probably the most costly, is to use convenience products. Veggie burgers are available frozen in a variety of flavors and are easy to prepare. Just substitute a veggie burger for a hamburger patty in patty melts or hamburger platters. Pile high the raw vegetables (sliced tomato, lettuce, onion, bell pepper, shredded carrot, etc.) and you have a quick entrée. A veggie burger can be substituted for a slice of meatloaf, Salisbury steak, Swiss steak, or country-fried steak. Frozen "poultry" products, such as Tofurky™, can be quickly heated and sauced for a fast entrée.
If fast sauces are an issue, you can quickly grill onions and peppers or onions and mushrooms with oil and garlic. This type of topping can be piled on top of grilled portobellos or fake meats instead of sauces. Purchase a container of vegetable base that can be quickly diluted with hot water and thickened with cornstarch to make a more upscale gravy. Silken tofu can be whirled in the blender with a small amount of tomato paste, garlic, and basil for a creamy tomato sauce. The good news is the vegetable base and tofu sauces take only minutes to prepare, so keep the ingredients for them on hand. You can grill a veggie burger, a portobello cap, or a slice of Tofurky™ and dress it with one of these three sauces for a fast and easy dish. If you want even faster and easier, slice a piece of Tofurky™. Place a slice of sweet onion and a slice of tomato on the Tofurky™, cover it with tomato sauce, and heat in a microwave. That's it! You've made a fast, attractive hot entrée. If you've got several extra seconds, sprinkle on sliced olives, shredded basil, chopped green onions, or sliced mushrooms.
Pasta is another easy way to go for fast vegetarian entrées. To make a pasta dish acceptable to both omnivores and vegans, select pasta made without eggs. Prepare a marinara sauce (tomato sauce with vegetables), add sautéed or steamed mushrooms, minced garlic, and extra tomatoes, and serve over cooked pasta for a fast entrée. Or toss pasta with sauce, place in steam table pan, top with chopped tomatoes, bell peppers, and onions, cover, and bake until hot for a quick vegetarian casserole. Additions to the tomato sauce can include chopped seasonal vegetables (such as summer squash, carrots, and different varieties of mushrooms), cooked lentils or white beans, roasted garlic, and fresh chopped herbs (try basil or oregano). For a color and flavor difference, use pesto sauce (basil or spinach puréed with pine nuts, olive oil, and garlic). If you have to serve meat, the caterer can add the cooked meat right before serving.
If your menu offers dishes prepared with beans or legumes, cook the beans without animal products so you can use them for everyone. If you don't prepare beans, keep cans of several varieties on hand. You can toss together a hearty four-bean soup (try kidney, navy, garbanzo, and black-eye peas), pair it with a baked potato (topped with chopped veggies and vegan margarine), steamed rice, or pasta salad and you have a fast, vegetarian entrée. Or season red or black beans with onion, cumin, and pepper and serve on a steaming bed of white or brown rice. Cooked beans can be puréed and seasoned and used as a sauce to top pasta, rice, or other cooked grains. Toss cooked beans into a rice pilaf for another fast entrée. These types of menu items work well with all audiences.
If you have baked potatoes on the menu, cook them without butter or meat stock. Baked potatoes can be topped with chopped cooked vegetables, cooked beans, salsa, and vegan margarine and paired with a veggie bean stew (use some of the beans just mentioned) or hot dinner rolls. Or pair a stuffed baked potato with steamed red and green cabbage with caraway and a grilled mushroom for a fast, vegetarian dinner. If you have the space, create a baked potato bar and let your customers and employees create their own hot potato specialties. The same can be done with a pasta bar. Have several types of unsauced cooked pasta, several sauces (all without meat and at least one without dairy), and chopped fresh and cooked vegetables. Vegetarian or not, customers can easily make their own entrées.
Veggie "steaks" of flavored seitan, tempeh, or portobellos are good to have on hand. Pair a grilled "steak" with the above-mentioned baked potatoes, a bean dish, a variety of steamed or grilled seasonal vegetables, or a tossed green salad or pasta salad.
Examples of labor-saving vegan appetizers for everyone would be crudities with hummus or bean dip, or vegetable tempura (use rice flour and water for the coating, no egg). Many side dishes are naturally vegan, such as roasted potatoes (drizzle with herbed oil or vegan margarine), baked potatoes (offer salsa and vegan margarine as toppings), vegetables steamed with fresh or dried herbs, sautéed mushrooms, green beans amandine, glazed carrots (use maple syrup or orange juice concentrate to keep it vegan), fresh fruit salad or fruit compote, pasta with tomato sauce, steamed barley, couscous or rice served with chopped nuts or sautéed veggies, and grilled vegetable brochettes (skewer cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell peppers).
Make one pot of soup and serve it to everyone. Potage Crecy (purée of carrot soup) is a fast vegan study. Cook carrots and potatoes together until they are tender enough to purée. Purée until creamy, then season with garlic, white pepper, and parsley and you have a silky soup that gives the impression of being creamy and buttery. The same vegan soup routine can be done with winter squash (try banana or butternut), sweet potatoes, or any root vegetable. Season squash or sweet potato soups with white pepper, cumin, and thyme (savory) or ginger, mace, and nutmeg (holiday flavors). If you have the time, create a compound margarine by softening the vegan margarine, mixing in herbs, and refrigerating. Right before serving, place a slice of refrigerated compound margarine on the hot soup. It will arrive at the table steaming and aromatic, truly vegetarian, and very delicious. Why prepare two or three pots of soup when one can please everybody?
Everyone loves a sandwich now and then. Veggie hot dogs can be offered instead of meat-based hot dogs. They can be grilled or steamed. If the grill is hot, toss on extra veggie burgers and dogs along with sliced vegetables, such as zucchini, summer squash, mushrooms, onions, and eggplant. These can be stored in the refrigerator until needed. You can reheat veggie burgers in the oven and microwave and build a hot vegetarian sandwich with grilled onions and peppers. Or you can create a fancier entrée, serving a grilled veggie burger on a bed of couscous or barley with mushroom gravy. Grilled veggie hot dogs can be sliced and added to soups or put in casseroles when meat would usually be used. Create a fast, smoky lentil casserole by combining canned or cooked lentils with prepared tomato sauce and sliced, grilled veggie hot dogs. Heat the mixture in a microwave or oven until bubbly and serve with a baked sweet potato or hot cornbread.
A hospital we visited was making "bagel veggie hot dogs" for its pediatric patients. Each bagel was toasted on the grill, a veggie hot dog was sliced length-wise and grilled, and then cut to fit the bagel. Each bagel sandwich was wrapped in foil and heated in the oven for about 5 minutes. Served with relish, ketchup, and mustard, this creation was a big hit. You can pre-make bagel dogs, refrigerating them until you need them. This is a good way to ensure that you have a satisfying sandwich on hand when "surprise" vegetarians drop in for lunch.
You can stuff whole wheat and plain pita with pre-grilled vegetables, radishes, hummus, olives, and sprouts. Wrap flour, tomato, and blue corn tortillas with pre-grilled veggies, beans, lettuce, and salsa. Try wrapping pre-grilled vegetables with cracker bread, spring roll wrappers, and soft pizza crust. Instead of a veggie burger, top a burger bun with grilled veggies, pickles, and salsa. Create a summer sub with grilled and marinated vegetables, dried herbs, and salad greens on a crusty baguette or in a demi-loaf of walnut-green onion or black olive-sun dried tomato.
If you don't have time to design new dishes, prepare a last-minute hot veggie sandwich by tossing thick-sliced onions, peppers, and mushrooms on the grill. When these vegetables are almost cooked, toss some thickly sliced tomatoes on the grill. Serve the grilled vegetables in a pita, on a burger bun, or rolled into a burrito. You can create an elegant entrée by layering these grilled vegetables into a tower on a dinner plate, garnishing with toasted almonds, tomato coulis (fresh tomato purée), or chopped fresh basil leaves, and serve with steamed, herbed greens and freshly steamed basmati or jasmine rice. Use this vegetable tower as an entrée for your vegetarian banquet guests.
A Happy Ending
Depending on customer preference, you don't need to make a "vegetarian" dessert. Many commercial sorbets and fruit ices are already vegan (read the labels) and can be used in place of ice cream for sundaes or other ice cream creations. If you have extra fruit, such as strawberries or melon, you can purée it and freeze it to create your own sorbet. Everyone will enjoy a frozen strawberry sundae; it's not mandatory for the frozen portion to be dairy-based.
Tofu is the secret ingredient in "creamy" vegan desserts. Blended tofu can be used to create "cream" pies, puddings, and custard. Silken tofu has the consistency of custard already, so the set-up time is shorter. And tofu has a neutral flavor, so you can create chocolate, butterscotch, lemon, pumpkin, orange, or any other flavor you'd like for a tofu pudding or pie filling. We have seen recipes for tofu cheesecake, tofu pumpkin pie, and tofu custard. There are ready-to-use tofu dessert items, such as soy ice cream and pies, available on the market today, too. Depending on your budget, you may want to create pumpkin custard or a lemon chiffon pie that is tofu-based. Serve it to everyone and get ready for the compliments.
Fruit can be used for vegan desserts and savory or sweet sauces, which can please all customers. Fruit pies (use vegetable shortening or vegan margarine for the crust), turnovers, and cobblers can be made ahead of time and frozen for later use. Baked apples and pears flavored with ginger and maple syrup can be a dessert or a side dish, and apple or pear sauce can be used as an entrée or dessert sauce. Stewed apples and raisins seasoned with cinnamon and maple syrup can be a side dish for a savory entrée or served over fruit sorbet or soy or rice ice cream for a "fire and ice" dessert. Fresh sliced fruit, sprinkled with cinnamon makes a refreshing vegan dessert that will delight everyone, not just the "specialty" market.
If you need to serve just a few vegetarian desserts and you do have time to plan, prepare the fresh fruit sorbet or baked apples or pears as described above. If you don't have time or space to prepare separate desserts, always keep two or three sorbets in the freezer. Scoop three small portions of sorbet onto a dinner plate, garnish with fresh berries, fresh citrus sections or fresh mint, and serve it as a "trio of sorbet." If melon is in season, serve two small scoops of sorbet atop a wedge of fresh casaba, honeydew, or cantaloupe. If between seasons, serve sorbet atop fresh and frozen (thawed) fruit salad. You can microwave-bake an apple in three or four minutes. Serve in a brandy snifter with a swirl of maple syrup and a sprinkle of ground cinnamon and ginger. In less formal settings, serve a sorbet cone or a sorbet sundae, topped with chopped nuts, dried fruit, and shredded coconut.
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Thanks to volunteer Stephanie Schueler for converting this article to HTML.
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