CAN WE ALL SIT DOWN and have dinner together? asks Anna Thomas, and then she answers that question with a resounding “yes” in her just-out cookbook, “Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table.” No more food fights: bring on the togetherness, and without exhausting the cook, either.
Anyone who has hosted a meal in recent years—whether a big holiday gathering for extended family or a casual summer supper al fresco for friends—has faced the moment of reckoning, or even panic, when various guests reveal their dietary restrictions or philosophies. One’s a vegan. Another has food allergies. Another doesn’t consider it dinner without a major piece of meat in the center of the plate.
No problem, if you stop planning around these negatives and look for common ground, Anna Thomas explains. Anna is author of the 1973 million-seller cookbook “The Vegetarian Epicure,” and also of “Love Soup” in 2009—one of my most-used cookbooks ever, and which won a James Beard Award, so I’m not alone in my praise.
She and I talked about rethinking how we cook for the social table, and Anna shared ideas and also recipes for innovative salads and inspired dressings in time for planting some of the key ingredients for them in our gardens.
Read along as you listen to the June 6, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my q&a with anna thomas
Q. Before we get talking salads, Anna, I want to briefly discuss the book’s point of view: You say that we often are sort of starting backwards when we try to accommodate everyone at the table, bending backwards.
A. This is really a book about hospitality, and community. Everybody wants that, so that’s why we do bend over backwards. We want to all sit down at the table together and have a good time.
But people started telling me that they were afraid to invite people over to eat, to have a dinner party. People would start to panic—around Thanksgiving, this would reach critical mass, but also all the time.
This not a good thing, because sitting down to eat together is not a detail of civilized life—it’s kind of the basis of it.
We don’t want to give that up, or throw that away—just because people eat a little differently. What I thought about, when I thought about this, was we do grow up in a meat-centric food culture. We want to make a flexible meal that we can have different people over, but we’re starting with that idea of a piece of meat in the center, and a couple of things around the sides. If you start there inevitably you will be substituting and compromising right away, if you want to accommodate other people but that meat eater.
I thought, “That’s difficult.” The other option is making two meals [laughter], which is first of all a giant hassle, and if there are two meals, let’s face it, there is going to be an A meal and a B meal.
Q. I love that in the book where you said that. I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years, and I’ve eaten a lot of B meals at public events.
A. [Laughter.] It’s true, right? “We have this alternate meal for you.” Well, I want to be on the A list. It’s a problem, and nobody wants to be eating the B meal—I don’t; you don’t.
So I thought, “What do we have to do here?” and that’s when it sort of came to be that we have to invert our thinking; turn it on its head. We’re not just bending over backwards to have people over to eat with us; we’re doing it backwards.
If we start with the food everyone eats, and then elaborate—don’t stop there—elaborate, keep going. If you start with the food every eats, whether you’re thinking of a single dish or a whole menu, a big meal—whatever it is—start with that food. Figure something out that’s delicious and satisfying, that’s lovely and everybody will like, and then don’t stop there.
Honor everybody who is at your table. Figure out the right dairy products, piece of fish, or meat or whatever it is that works with that meal, and think of it more as an accessory. That’s what I did.
I thought this way, everybody’s eating pretty much the same meal, some version of it. Nobody feels sidelined.
Q. So if we’re the hostess, we’re not starting planning our menu thinking, “Ugh, he doesn’t eat this; she doesn’t eat that,” and making a list of what people don’t eat. We’re starting by thinking of what brings us all together, that we all eat.
A. Because there are millions of foods that we all eat. When you stop and think about it, when people apply labels and say something like “vegan,” people back away right away. They think that’s some weird kind of food they don’t eat, but in fact that’s the food everyone eats.
You go to a picnic, you eat the watermelon. It’s not a vegan watermelon…
A. …it’s just the watermelon. You go to the bar, at happy hour, and have your guacamole and chips and margarita, and they’re not the vegan guacamole and chips—they’re just the guacamole and chips that everybody eats, etcetera.
Q. So the book has like 150 recipes with this philosophy, and menus ranging from mezze parties to Thanksgiving dinner, to salad suppers to a sort of updated pizza night. You’re not solving this problem just for the high holidays, but also for everyday cooking.
A. The holidays in a funny kind of way are often the easiest thing to deal with, because we make big meals with lots of dishes. So we can deal with it in a menu. But what if you’re just having a couple of people over for dinner, and you want to make one or two things, and that’s it? You want to make a simple meal.
That’s where my fish soup, which a make a lot—well, it’s not a fish soup until 2 minutes before people eat it. It’s a vegetable soup—a beautiful, delicious vegetable soup that you can garnish in many different ways. And you can divide it between two pots, and add the seafood to one of those pots 5 minutes before you’re serving it, and you can have two different versions, and everybody’s happy and it’s delicious.
Those kinds of approaches to things, that take a little advance thinking—and I’ve done it for you. [Laughter.]
Q. Before we move to the salads and other examples, I have to say that I got lost in the dessert chapter. [Laughter.] Oh my goodness, there is coconut rice pudding with cardamom, and that gingersnap topping for a winter fruit crumble. These little differences—taking something I’ve heard of before, and these little differences in the flavor to make it a little more special.
A. My goal here, as it was in every part of the book, was to come up with as many things as possible that were just delicious and wonderful, but were not dairy-based. So that you can have a dessert and you could pair it with something else—like that crumble with the gingerbread topping. You would have a scoop of vanilla ice cream next to it, or not.
Q. And the rice pudding was almond milk and coconut milk combined.
A. And they just happen to work fantastically with those flavors.
Q. One observation I would make about the range of salads in the new book, whether the main course or what you call companion salads, is that the genius of is that it’s not the flavors—the ingredients—but it’s also about the range of textures.
Like you have that finely chopped holiday salad, and other that have shaved ingredients. How do you approach texture?
A. I think it really changes how things taste. If you have a beautiful piece of fennel, a nice fennel bulb, and just cut a big chunk of it off, and just bite into that, it’s crunchy and delicious—and it’s strong, and forward.
If you shave it into thin, thin slices—the slices that are translucent, that you can see through, that you use your mandolin to shave—suddenly you get a very delicate piece of fennel, and suddenly it absorbs much more of the citrusy dressing that’s on it. It’s a very different experience right away.
And chop salads—I love chop salads. I am a chop-salad fanatic. I order them in restaurants, and I make them. I love that whole experience of getting a whole lot of different flavors and textures exploding in your mouth at the same time.
Q. It definitely struck me that you are thinking texture, not just flavors.
A. It’s part of the fun of eating.
Q. And with flavors, there were some I hadn’t thought of—one that for gardeners are so easy to bring from the garden. Like there’s a parsley and radish salad. I always put flat Italian parsley leaves in my salad greens, as one of my greens, but I’ve never made a salad where parsley is the main green. This one has parsley, radishes, dried cranberries, red radicchio and salty capers—wow.
A. That salad was the answer to a question: What do you do in the winter, when you don’t have those beautiful spring lettuces that you want? That flat-leaf Italian parsley, I was getting bunches of it in my farmers’ market, and the leaves were big and crisp and formidable.
I thought, “Wow, you look like you’re auditioning to be a salad, so let’s go!” [Laughter.]
Q. To me that was very inspired, because it’s something that’s available for a longer season—and it’s so good for you; could you get more greenness that that?
So let’s go back to texture for a moment. You have this kale salad—and how do you wrangle kale? [Laughter.] It’s so durable or tough.
A. It is; it’s a warrior. That’s why it was only used for so many years sitting on that salad bar in a bed of ice. It would last so many days.
Q. It was a garnish, a décor item. [Laughter.]
A. A décor item. I love kale, and I use it in a lot of different ways. To make a good kale salad is easy, but you just need to break that kale down a little bit in the right way. What I do is take my Tuscan kale or curly kale, and cut it up in thin strips—not exactly shreds, but thin slices, thin strips. I put that in a bowl and I pour my very lemony dressing over it—it needs a little salt, and a little acid from the lemon. And then I pretend it is a ball of bread dough, and I just knead it with my hands for about a minute. That works the salt and the acid into the kale, and it breaks it down a little bit.
I think to myself that I’m making kale ceviche; I’m breaking it down with the acid. Once you do that it becomes sort of supple, and it doesn’t have that, “I’m a piece of raw kale and I dare you to bite into me” quality.
And the dressing I found that was really perfect for that—and that I developed for that purpose—has a lot of lemon juice. It has almost twice as much lemon juice as it has olive oil. And because it has so much lemon juice, I realized I needed to balance that acid with something so I added a little bit of agave nectar to it.
That was so delicious—and the simplest dressing in the world: lemon juice, olive oil, and a little bit of agave nectar and some sea salt. That’s it.
Q. It’s great that you brought that up. I saw that throughout the book: The agave nectar was one of your not-so-secret secret ingredients. It appears in quite a number of your dressings. It offsets the citrus and zest that you love.
A. Agave is a sugar, but it’s a sugar that’s very delicate. It’s a nectar, so you don’t have to dissolve it. You can use a little bit of it and you get a lot of oomph. It’s not as assertive as maple syrup or honey.
Q. I agree—but I haven’t used it in salad dressings. That was an “aha” to me; I need to try that.
A. And when you make this dressing and work your kale with it for like a minute literally—we’re not talking a long time here—then you have a canvas pretty much for anything.
The summer chop salad you were referring to [photo, top of page; recipe below] has fresh corn and peppers and cherry tomatoes and a lot of fresh herbs: mint and basil. Just delicious things. But you can do a salad like that with different thing—you can add roasted root vegetables to that kale. You can add radishes; a lot of different things, depending what the season is. You start to run with that, and you get these beautiful chop salads that are just so nice.
Really if you think about it, a very substantial salad like that is what I call a center-of-the-plate salad. It’s not a side salad. Especially if you add one of the grains I love to use, or a legume.
I love to use faro; I love to mix faro and black rice. I like to use red quinoa. You add a little bit of a grain like that to a salad, and you’ve got what really is a one-dish meal. And can you add things? Yes you can.
Q. And you might have for the meathead who’s at the table [laughter]…
A. And we love our meatheads, and want them to feel good at our table. You can have something really easy, like that rotisserie chicken you picked up on the way home from work. Or you can have pan-grilled swordfish with garlic, a very easy thing to do. Kale is s strong flavor, so you can meet a strong flavor with another strong flavor. It’s wonderful.
Not to mention cheeses–like I think a Maytag blue cheese is recommended in the book as something that would go with it. There are a lot of options.
Q. You just mentioned grains—faro, for instance, and quinoa.
A. I love quinoa, red especially. To me it tastes just a little more interesting. It’s delicious, and a very good source of protein—and it cooks in like 15 minutes. How user-friendly.
I sometimes cook up some quinoa and keep it in a container in the refrigerator, and just spoon some into a tossed salad that I’m making for myself. One of my favorite things to do is to make the faro and black rice pilaf that I have a recipe for, and that in itself can be the beginning of a meal, the idea at the center of a meal. That faro and black rice pilaf has caramelized onions—my Number 1 not-so-secret ingredient. [Laughter.]
Q. You took the words right out of my mouth. That was the other thing I noticed: It was a little bit of a motif. I don’t think of making them and using them as an ingredient in enough things. It changes everything; they’re so rich.
A. I’m Polish, and I think that’s maybe it’s a Polish thing. That’s what I’ve always done, and I see my son doing it now. The first thing he does is cut up an onion and put it in the pan, and start that sautéing and caramelizing, and then he thinks, “So now what am I going to do; what am I going to cook?” He’s got that first step going already.
Q. I think people are probably embarrassed or loathe to buy bottled dressing, but also a little paralyzed about how to go beyond the basic vinaigrette. The book has one that has cranberries in it, for instance. Tell me some of your variations.
A. The cranberry one was interesting. I was at my cousin’s house in Washington, D.C., one Thanksgiving, and we were making dinner. Somebody pointed at me and said, “You make the salad. Put this together and make the dressing.”
I looked and there were all these cranberries sitting around. I think I was just making one lemon and olive oil and agave things that I was describing, and I thought, “Why not?” I just threw a handful of raw cranberries into the blender and it was delicious.
You sort of use what speaks to you; what’s in front of you.
I have a fresh ginger and citrus dressing that I really, really like. With ginger, that little drop of dark sesame oil and rice vinegar is fantastic; it really makes it pop.
I also like miso. Using a little fresh miso—red miso—and a little tamari (not too much!) and a little mirin and sesame oil. These are not crazy ingredients; they’re pretty easy to find everywhere, and this is where your blender shines.
You just put them all in the blender and 20 seconds later you have a lovely dressing.
Q. And it really changes everything. It puts your signature on it, and makes it special. I guess that’s sort of about building these special meals that bring people together—and yet not complicated. Special without being complicated.
A. I’m a home cook; I’m not a chef. I don’t have a restaurant. Everything I cook has to be pretty accessible. There are some things that are a little more elaborate in here, but most of it is pretty straight-forward.
It just starts with that idea of starting with the food everybody eats, coming up with something that’s delicious and satisfying, but that can be accessorized and elaborated, because I want everybody to be happy at my table. I want everybody to feel honored.
anna thomas’s summer chop salad with corn and pepper salsa
THIS IS A robust and cheery salad. Paired with some crusty bread and your favorite hummus, it makes a perfect summer meal. I have also served Farro and Black Rice Pilaf mounded in the center of a platter with this salad glistening all around it—a very successful supper, with a glass of chilled sauvignon blanc. You can add a bit of teriyaki tofu or grilled chicken for a heartier salad, or some tangy Maytag Blue. And see the menu that follows for yet another pairing, with strips of pan-grilled swordfish.
- 2 bunches Tuscan kale (about 1 lb.)
- 1 recipe Agave Lemon Vinaigrette (p. 92)
- 3 ears fresh sweet corn (2 cups kernels)
- 2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus more to taste
- 1 large red onion (12 oz.), quartered and sliced
- 1 tsp. sea salt, plus more to taste
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 cups (about 10 oz.) diced sweet red bell peppers
- 3 Tbs. balsamic vinegar, plus more to taste
- 2 cups halved cherry tomatoes
- 3 Tbs. chopped fresh mint
- 3 Tbs. chopped fresh basil
- a pinch of crushed red chile
- optional: 6–8 oz. diced Teriyaki Grilled Tofu or diced, grilled chicken, or crumbled Maytag Blue cheese
Slice the kale: stack 10 or 12 leaves at a time, roll them up lengthwise, then slice them crosswise into thin ribbons; stop short of the last inch or two and discard the thickest bottom part of the ribs. Toss the slivered kale with the agave vinaigrette and massage it with your hands for 1 or 2 minutes to soften it. Slice the kernels off the corn.
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan and sauté the onion with 1/2 teaspoon salt over medium-high heat for 6 to 7 minutes, tossing often, until it is limp and showing charred edges. Add the corn kernels and continue tossing and stirring for another 2 to 3 minutes, until the corn is also showing brown spots. Add the garlic and diced peppers, stir for another minute, then add the balsamic vinegar and toss until it has cooked away, about 30 seconds. Remove the salsa from the heat.
Combine the tomatoes, fresh herbs, crushed red chile, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt. Pour the corn and pepper salsa over the kale and toss, then add the tomato mixture and toss again. Taste. Enough salt? Vinegar? Oil? Correct the seasoning if needed, and mix well one more time. Now customize: toss crumbles of blue cheese or some grilled tofu or chicken into all or part of the salad, or pass them separately at the table.
Serves 4 to 6 as a center-of-the-plate salad, more as a side salad
agave lemon vinaigrette
I used this simple formula to marinate kale—lots of lemon, less olive oil, and a little agave to balance the acid—and I liked it so much that I began using it as a dressing for all kinds of salads. The fresh taste of the lemon juice just knocks me out—I love it.
- 5 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
- 3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbs. agave nectar
- 1 tsp. sea salt
Whisk together all the ingredients, or shake them well in a jar.
Makes about 2/3 cup
Variation . . . Agave Lime Vinaigrette
Here’s a milder version, with lime juice, which is not as acidic: use 4 tablespoons each fresh lime juice and extra-virgin olive oil, a single tablespoon agave nectar, 1/2 teaspoon grated lime zest, and salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
And Another . . . Citrus Glaze
The same delicious idea, adjusted to make a glaze for roasted root vegetables or a tart-sweet dressing to bring out the best in the spicy or bitter cold-season greens. Reduce the lemon juice to 2 tablespoons, add 1 tablespoon of sherry vinegar and at least 1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, and go easy on the salt.
(Recipes and images from “Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore” by Anna Thomas. Copyright © 2016 by Independent Productions, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)
enter to win the book
I’LL BUY A COPY of “Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore” by Anna Thomas for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, below the last reader comment:
What is your tactic for satisfying everyone at the table when you’re cooking for guests (or even family, if they have different tastes)?
I guess I typically resort to lots of small dishes–more mezze than main course–layered onto a salad of mixed greens, figuring that everyone will find an assortment of things to put together that add up to a meal. Or soup–like one of the wonderful ones in “Love Soup.”
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will–but answer is even better.
I’ll select one random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, June 12, 2016. US only. Good luck to all.
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