Cross-posted to the Kosher Blog
For many of you, having guests at a shabbat meal means often juggling various dietary
restrictions preferences that guests may bring to the table. Michael Pollan makes the interesting point that the French consider it improper to impose your diet onto your host, and yet how many of you can recall meals in which you were left with virtually nothing to eat as a result of your kashrut/vege- pesce- ovo- lacto- tarianism/ or any possible allergies. Peter Berley’s The Flexitarian Table may hopefully solve at least some of the issues.
The book comprises a variety of recipes, grouped according to season, that are designed to work equally well with meat or vegetable protein. Rather than having a meat based meal and present a often weaker alternative to the guests who choose not to eat meat ( “And instead of the roast beef and spicy garlic chicken with grilled vegetables, the vegetarians can have…….grilled vegetables! Oh and here’s another piece of kugel”), hosts can now prepare meals that are virtually identical save for tofu/seitan etc. replacing the animal components. True, one does not always know how many guests ascribe to one particular diet, though it is easier to estimate than you might imagine. My rule has been when in doubt make more veggie stuff since if you have extras of that it can still feed the hungry omnivores. I have been pleasantly surprised at how many confirmed bassar-ites give tofu or chickpeas a spin after all the meat is gone from the table, often to palate-expanding results.
I decided the best way to review the cookbook was to prepare an entire meal based on recipes found in the book. While the book does have recipes grouped according to menu suggestion, I chose to pick from various menus, all from the summer section of the cookbook in order to increase the variety and have enough different dishes to go around. So this past Shabbat we hosted 10 people and had a flexi-friday night meal.
We began with a tilapia/tofu ceviche which was a hit across the board. People really liked the colours and textures that came in the form of mixed vegetables, hiziki, and pickled red onions. A hidden bonus of this dish was that our pregnant guest could avoid the raw fish and still enjoy the dish. Our main course was a strip steak/sliced portobello mushroom with a breadcrumb salsa (essentially breadcrumbs and marinated red onions tossed together and sprinkled liberally over the protein). The salsa definitely gave another texture to familiar dishes and took a very simple dish to restaurant level in the eyes of many guests. In my eyes the dish took all of 20 minutes to prepare for the whole group and further demonstrated how easy it is for restaurants to impress people with garnish.
Our meal was rounded out by a summer bean ratatouille, quinoa salad with green beans, corn, and tomatoes; and an arugula salad with a mustard vinaigrette. Seeing as the ratatouille, arugula, and steak/mushrooms comprise menu 2 in the cookbook, in hindsight I guess I took one complete menu and added a couple of dishes from other menus to round out a large meal, truthfully not a bad way to go. All the side dishes were a hit as well as fairly easy to make, though I would caution people in terms of the portion sizes listed especially if you are planning on doubling a recipe. The Ratatouille ended up being way more than we needed despite some people even taking doubles. The flipside of that is that it makes for a great vegetarian main course. There are virtually no desserts in the cookbook, presumably because few people put animal in their sweets, but my wife came through with a wonderful rum cake.
Some of the books strengths are also potential weaknesses. The fact that the author cares enough to have seasonal recipes means that you occasionally feel like you are overusing certain items (there were three recipes at our meal that called for red onion, two of them pickled). There are lots of salads, which is great if you love salads, not so great if you like to have more elaborate or cooked dishes and there are also few concessions made for vegans. Nevertheless there is lots of good stuff to be found here, whether in the introduction where he sets out his principles, the various helpful hints throughout, or for me the best perk, the ability to learn how various vegetarian basics cook in a variety of methods, this is definitely a thumbs-up recommendation.
The abovementioned introduction as well as a sampling of recipes are available on the book’s website. If you like middle eastern food, I would rearrange your shabbat meals this week to fit in his take on lamb, falafel, zhoug and tahini sauce.