how to host a vegetarian feast

Have you ever struggled to figure out what to cook for vegetarian guests?

As a dedicated omnivore I can’t imagine a life without bacon, but there have been times when I’ve dabbled in the world of vegetarianism and even veganism. I know just how delicious vegetarian food can be. Lately, however, I seem to be in the habit of defaulting to roasting large hunks of protein whenever we are having people over – be it pork, lamb or chicken – with no complaints.

So I found it a little daunting, a few weeks ago when we invited the boys from the flat downstairs up for dinner and I remembered that they happen to be vego. My first thought was to go for a vegetarian lasagna. Then I recalled chatting to a vego friend years ago. She had lamented the fact the most likely vegetarian option when she was invited out for dinner was – you guessed it – a vegetable based lasagna.

Back to the drawing board for me. With a bit of thought I came up with a much better solution – a selection of Sri Lankan dishes inspired by my Sri Lankan mate Paul Van Reyk. As I was brainstorming – I came up with a few tips to help you (and me!) next time the vego dilemma appears:

Look to cuisines that naturally favour vegetarians.

Our friends in the Mediterranean – especially the Greeks and Italians – are a brilliant place to start for great vegetarian food. Think moussaka or a mushroom risotto. On the other side of the sea, Lebanese provides another brilliant source of vegetarian meals. And then there are the more spicy offerings from the Indians or Sri Lankans – so full of variety and flavour that you’ll barely have a chance to miss having meat.

Think about ways you could serve a meat and a vego option.

Sometimes I like to have an option for the meat eaters and another for the vegos. If you can think of something that works with the same sauces and accompaniments – you won’t have to go to a lot of extra effort. I’ve served steak and BBQ field mushrooms at one time and on another it was lamb cutlets or pan fried haloumi. The only trick is to balance the demand as sometimes you’ll find that your die-hard carnivores will also want to ‘taste’ the vegetarian offering.

Consider eggs as a protein source.

A souffle, frittata or omelette can work like a charm to keep both camps satisfied. Tofu can also be an option but there’s always a risk that the meat eaters will feel like they’ve been tricked into a vegetarian meal.

Go for a meal based on shared plates.

This is a great way to keep everyone happy. It allows you to mix it up with say a lamb curry if you were cooking Sri Lankan like my menu below, or a chorizo dish if you were in a Spanish vibe to keep the carnivores satisfied. And then choose vegetarian plates for the remaining dishes so that there is a wide selection for everyone.

a sri lankan vego feast

beetroot curry
spiced red lentils
cashew chickpea & cauliflower curry
mint & coriander chutney
steamed rice (recipe HERE)

*Note: Most of these recipes call for curry leaves which I’ve seen for sale in supermarkets and veggie shops but they aren’t always available. I’ve made each of the curries without them and they still taste delicious – a little different but certainly still lovely so even if you can’t find any curry leaves, I urge you to give them a go.

It might seem like a lot of effort for a dinner but when you think that a normal roast had the meat and the veg and then a sauce and a salad there actually isn’t that much work involved in pulling together this meal.

beetroot curry
serves 6-8 as part of a shared meal

Adapted from my mate Paul van Reyk on his comprehensive Sri Lankan food site.

As with all curries the heat level is all in your hands. For those of you who like it spicy leave the seeds in but if you’re cooking for a more sensitive crowd feel. When you first put this together in the pot it looks a little weird with the bright green chillies contrasting with the beets and coconut milk. But trust me, after a little while simmering together, everything get bathed in that gorgeous regal purple colour that is pretty hard to pass up.

1 large onion, peeled & diced
2T vegetable oil
2 bunches large beetroot (approx 900g – 2lb)
3 sprigs fresh curry leaves, optional*
6 large green chillies, halved lengthwise
1T ground dried coriander
2t sugar
1/4C red wine vinegar
400mL coconut milk

Trim beets and scrub well. Cut off any scanky bits of beet and cut each into 6-8 wedges. Place oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and cook for approx 10mins stirring frequently or until onion has softened. Add prepared beets, curry leaves, chillies and coriander and fry for a few more minutes.

Season with sugar and red wine vinegar and add coconut milk and enough water to make a creamy sauce. Bring to a simmer and then cook covered for 40min to 1 hour or until beetroot is tender and everything has a lovely regal purple hue.

spiced red lentils
serves 6-8 as part of a shared meal

Adapted from my mate Paul van Reyk on his comprehensive Sri Lankan food site.

The secret to avoiding red lentils turning into mush as they cook is to treat them a little like a risotto and limit the amount of liquid you add. Although to be fair the first time I made this I completely overcooked the lentils into a big mash and they still tasted delicious.

2T peanut or vegetable oil
1 large brown onion, peeled & chopped
3 large green chillies, deseeded & chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
300g (10 1/2oz) red lentils, rinsed
4 sprigs curry leaves, optional*
2t ground cumin
1/2 cinnamon stick
1t ground turmeric
1/2t ground ginger
1T fish sauce (optional – otherwise use more salt to season)

Heat oil in a medium saucepan and add onion and chilli. COver and cook stirring occasionally over a low heat until the onion is soft. Add lentils and garlic and stir for a few minutes. Add spices and curry leaves if using and add 1/2C water. Cover and bring to a simmer. Cook stirring occasionally and adding more water if it looks dry. You’ll probably use about 1 1/2C – 2C water all together. When the lentils are tender, season well with fish sauce, if using, and extra salt.


cashew chickpea & cauliflower curry
serves 6-8 as part of a shared meal

Adapted from my mate Paul van Reyk on his comprehensive Sri Lankan food site.

From the lack of comments on my recent post about parsnip & cauliflower puree I can tell that I’ve got a long way to go to converting most people to the joys of cauliflower. But trust me, there’s something magical about the way cauliflower absorbs the curry flavours. If I can’t convince you, at least try the curry with just the cashews and chickpeas. Double the canned chickpeas to make up for the cauliflower.

The other really special thing about this dish is the cashews. Cooked into the curry sauce they give an almost meaty textural protein hit. Don’t be freaked out by the colour – it’s all natural from the turmeric and doesn’t look anywhere near as fluro in real life as this photo.

300g (10oz) raw cashews
400mL (14 fl oz) coconut milk
2t ground coriander
1/2t fennel seeds
1t ground cumin
1/2t turmeric
1 – 2t chilli flakes
1T brown sugar
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into florettes
1 400g (14oz) can chickpeas, well drained
juice 1 lime
1T peanut or vegetable oil
2 red shallots, peeled & finely sliced
3 sprigs curry leaves, optional*
1/2t black mustard seeds, optional

Place cashews, coconut milk, spices, and sugar in a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add cauliflower and cover and cook stirring occasionally for 15minutes. Add drained chickpeas and continue to simmer until the cauliflower is tender. Stir through the lime juice and season.

Just before you’re ready to serve, heat oil in a small saucepan. Add shallots, curry leaves if using, and mustard seeds and cook until the shallots are just starting to brown. Plae curry in a serving bowl and pour over the hot flavoured oil. Serve immediately.

mint & coriander chutney
serves 6-8 as part of a shared meal

Adapted from my mate Paul van Reyk on his comprehensive Sri Lankan food site.

This time  I’ve used the chutney as an additional sauce, which is lovely. Especially with the lentils.

If you’re a fan of roast squash you could chop up 1/2 butternut squash and roast until soft in the centre and crispy on the outside. Spread roast squash on a serving platter and drizzle with the chutney. Seriously good.

1 bunch mint, leaves picked
1 bunch coriander, leaves picked
3 green chillies, deseeded
1/2 medium brown onion, peeled & chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled
juice 1 lime
1 1/2C natural yoghurt

Place all ingredients except yoghurt in a food processor. Whizz until everything is finely chopped. Stir through yoghurt.

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