Help! A vegetarian is coming to dinner. I don't know what to cook.

Cooking for a vegetarian guest needn't be a problem. Here are some simple tips to help you out.

By Moira Adams

Dinner suggestions

Photo by permission of Savita Nandkishore

If you're not used to cooking for vegetarians, having to deal with a guest who doesn't eat meat can seem daunting. It needn't be. In this article, I'll give you some tips for coping with the situation, as well as some suggestions for your menu.

Tip #1: Ask 'em what they eat

Before you even start thinking about what food to serve to your guest, you need to know exactly what he or she can and cannot eat.

According to the dictionary, a vegetarian is someone who eats dairy products and eggs, but abstains from meat, poultry and fish. But not all vegetarians read the same dictionary. Some folk who call themselves vegetarians will happily eat fish, while others might avoid eggs or perhaps certain dairy items.

To complicate matters, your guest might be a vegan, which means that he or she won't eat any animal products of any kind. So as well as meat and fish, that rules out eggs, milk, butter, cheese and many similar items. Even honey is off the menu for many vegans.

The only way to be sure of your guest's dietary requirements is to ask them. They won't be offended. On the contrary, they'll probably be delighted that you took the trouble to find out.

Tip #2: Cook the same for everyone

If at all possible, avoid serving the vegetarian with a different meal from your other guests. It's much better to plan a menu that will suit everyone. As well as saving you work, it will avoid any possible embarrassment that the veggie might feel at being made a special case.

But what if the other diners are all hard-core meat-and-potato folk? They might not appreciate having to forego their beef or chicken in favor of a vegetarian pasta or a bean casserole.

One solution is to serve several dishes - some with meat and some without - and to let people help themselves to whatever they want - provided, of course, that it's obvious which dish is which.

For example, you might serve roast chicken alongside a nut roast or lentil roast, with roast potatoes and a choice of vegetables on the side. Or perhaps a selection of curries, some made from lentils or beans, others from beef or fish. For an informal meal, you could offer hamburgers or hot dogs alongside bean burgers, or a choice of pizzas with different toppings.

Another option - one that will involve less work - is to make a main vegetarian dish for everyone, and to provide some meat or fish as a side dish. For example, you might serve a mushroom risotto, and provide strips of roast beef as a garnish for the meat-eaters.

Tip #3: Avoid the exotic

If you've glanced at recipes in vegetarian cookbooks or websites, you might have seen references to tofu, tempeh, tamari, seitan, and other esoteric ingredients. If you're not sure what these are or how to deal with them, don't try. Unless you especially enjoy a culinary challenge, it's better to stay with what you know.

Fortunately, there are plenty of vegetarian recipes around that use familiar everyday ingredients, such as beans, cheese, eggs, vegetables and pasta. The recipe page on this site has many excellent examples.

Tip #4: Watch for hidden ingredients

Obviously, you will avoid serving your vegetarian guest with meat, poultry and probably fish (and eggs and dairy products if they are vegan). What's less obvious is that these items often find their way into commercial food products as hidden ingredients.

This is especially true of sauces, dressings and ready-made meals. For example, pasta sauce is sometimes made with a chicken base; Caesar dressing might contains anchovies (as does Worcestershire sauce); animal fat (suet or lard) is sometimes present in pastry or other baked goods; and Asian sauces might contain shrimp paste.

A particularly troublesome ingredient is gelatin. Because it's made from the skin and bones of animals, it is not acceptable to vegetarians or vegans. Unfortunately, it is present in a variety of products, including some cakes and ready-made desserts, as well as some brands of low-fat ice cream and yogurt.

The only way to be sure of avoiding these hidden animal products is to carefully read the labels of any ready-made items that you plan to use. Most of the time, the ingredients will be obvious, but, if in doubt, avoid the item in question (you could also check this list of hidden animal-derived ingredients).

So what can I serve?

Despite the list of food items that you need to avoid, there are still a vast number of dishes that are acceptable to vegetarians, and which you can serve with confidence to all your guests. Among those that I can particularly recommend are stuffed eggplant, vegetarian moussaka, eggplant parmigiana and leek croustade - as well as the aforementioned mushroom risotto.

These are all dishes that I've served to vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, always with great success. With a bit of planning, and by following the tips in this article, I'm sure your own efforts will be just as successful.

May 2011

Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.

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