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Flexitarian Shabbat

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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.

Bete’avon!

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6 Responses to “Flexitarian Shabbat”

  1. Emily Says:

    Good thoughts, and great menu ideas. I have gone back and forth between eating meat, eating only fish, and now being vegetarian (ovo/lacto), but when I have cooked for and hosted others, I have always tried to rise to the challenge of being able to serve something that everyone will like, in addition to meeting guests’ various dietary needs. My kitchen has been dairy/pareve for years (except for a couple of trayfe dishes hidden in the cabinet!).

    One of the worst cooks I ever met (he’s mostly vegan), when I decided to become vegetarian, said to me that now I was going to have to learn to cook vegetarian food. Huh?? Veg food has been the bulk of what I eat at home for years anyway, and certainly what I serve to others (save for the occasional fish dinner); it’s not as though I eat nothing but hamburgers.

    One of my favorite shabbat dinners is make-your-own tacos and burritos – you just serve a whole bunch of bowls of condiments, beans, cheese, and other veggies in the middle of the table and heat up a mess of tortillas.

  2. Stephen Mendelsohn Says:

    BS”D

    “There are virtually no desserts in the cookbook, because few people put animal in their sweets …”

    What about eggs from battery caged, debeaked, and forced molted hens? And with egg (and dairy) being among the most common allergens, there is certainly a demand for egg-free baked goods — and challah too. I go over someone’s home and have to either make motzi over eggless bread or matzah, or skip lechem mishneh, as it would be a mitzvah ha-ba’ah ba-aveirah (a mitzvah done through a forbidden act).

    Sorry, but I don’t hold by the French. One would think that a sensitive host tries to reasonably accommodate the dietary needs of guests. In the case of someone with an allergy, it would be tantamount to disablilty discrimination not to. If someone is highly allergic to peanuts to the point of not being able to be in the same room, one simply cannot extend an invitation while also serving peanuts to everyone else. Even in the less extreme example discussed here, most hosts would want to make sure that no guest felt deprived at their table because of their dietary preferences.

  3. Hillary Says:

    Good to know there’s an effort out there! But sometimes certain restrictions or preferences can be contradictory to others. You can’t always please everyone! Especially when compromise isn’t always satisfying…the vegetarian-friendly meal may not be satisfying for the meat-lover, etc. But like I said, it’s great that someone is trying!

  4. jabbett Says:

    Funny, I recently made up a batch of Rick Bayless’s pickled red onions — his are sliced thick and briefly blanched, widely used in the Yucatan. Great to have some more recipes that call for them.

  5. Leah Koenig Says:

    FYI – you can purchase Peter Berley’s The Flexitarian Table by clicking on the icon on the bottom right of Hazon’s recommended list on the left bar of this page.

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