I’ve been vegan for over six years, which means I’ve endured over six years of increasingly unoriginal jokes that my diet consists of nothing but raw kale, whole blocks of tofu, and actual grass from the lawn. People are utterly convinced that I eat like a literal rabbit, minus the pellets, plus acai berries or whatever superfood du jour Gwyneth Paltrow is shilling. In my early vegan days, I’d get offended — there are plenty of easy plant-based meals out there! But now, I see it as a personal challenge.
A great meal doesn’t have to revolve around a single star ingredient. Granted, this is coming from someone who hasn’t eaten a steak dinner since the aughts, but I firmly believe that good eating is grounded in the marriage of multiple flavors and textures from a variety of sources. One of my great missions is sharing how outrageously decadent, indulgent, and delicious vegan cooking can be. I’ve spent a lot of years collecting cookbooks, combing through recipe blogs, teaching myself how to cook, and cooking for friends, which amounts to a lot of unofficial field research into easy plant-based meals that my non-vegan dinner guests will enjoy. Nowadays, when I’m hosting people who actually remember what bacon tastes like, I make sure to pull out all the stops and pick a recipe that hits all their favorite flavors and textures, be it spicy and crispy, creamy and savory, meaty and salty, or whatever other combo strikes their fancy.
Here are my top four easy, plant-based meals for wowing any dinner guests.
1. If your guests like creamy and savory… make risotto.
I have a conspiracy theory that arborio rice is actually a magical ingredient from a faraway fairy kingdom. How else do you explain the creamy decadence it achieves without even needing dairy? I know the real answer has something to do with its starch content, but I prefer to envision it growing in enchanted rice paddies somewhere in Narnia. Regardless of its origin, arborio rice should be your go-to grain when you’re striving for a meal that’s simultaneously gourmet-fancy and Grandma’s-house-comforting.
The secret to good risotto is patience. A handful of food bloggers may try to convince you that you can forego all the stirring and still achieve the same outcome, but don’t believe them. Good risotto deserves your undivided attention for ten or more minutes so you can coax out as much of that dreamy texture as possible. Embrace it: the kitchen is warm, the process is mesmerizing, your other hand is free for leisurely sipping of your beverage of choice, and your guests will be utterly dazzled by the final product. Risotto is my secret weapon, and I’ve yet to serve it to someone who didn’t groan with pleasure the minute it hit their tongue.
There are a lot of great risotto recipes out there, but here are a few of my favorites:
- Caramelized shiitake mushroom risotto
- Lemon asparagus risotto
- Mushroom and leek risotto
- Green pea lemon risotto from Veganomicon
2. If your guests like meaty and salty… serve something toothsome that mimics meat without being meat.
I have nothing against Beyond Meat, Tofurky, or any of the other meat substitute products out there. In fact, I think they’re great! As someone whose Vegan Agenda is primarily motivated by sustainability, I’m 100% in favor of anything that makes it easier for people to make eco-friendly food choices without feeling like they’re totally sacrificing the things they love. However, I don’t recommend serving these things to your non-vegan guests. They are going to fall flat by virtue of the fact that they’re just not the same, and everyone will walk away feeling disappointed.
That being said, I love recreating the eating sensations of meat: hearty, toothsome, deeply savory with layers of flavor. Recipes that do what meat does without trying so hard to be meat are great to have in your back pocket for your more skeptical guests. As I said before, those unfamiliar with vegan cuisine may be expecting you to just give them a bowl of produce and call it done. Imagine their delight when you surprise them with a hearty, aromatic meal they can really sink their teeth into!
Here are a few of my favorites. Some of them are better as finger foods, but they all have a place at the table:
- Buffalo popcorn tofu (great for folks who like spicy)
- Cajun chickpea cakes
- Chickpea cutlets
- Vegan sausage rolls
- Gyros from Vegan Comfort Classics (my boyfriend says this is his favorite thing I’ve ever cooked for him)
3. If your guests like spicy and crispy… serve something that only feigns health.
Listen, I get that a lot of vegans are motivated by health, but when you’re feeding vegan food to a non-vegan crowd, health is not your primary objective. If your non-vegan friends don’t plan their dinner party menus around calorie counts and macros, neither should you. Now is the time to throw caution to the wind and embrace fat, salt, and heavy breading with open arms. They are your friends when it comes to wowing your guests. Your cruciferous vegetables will be waiting for you tomorrow.
If you’re going this route, it’s important to know your audience so you can choose the right ~flavor profile~ to serve them. If you’ve got a bunch of Chipotle lovers coming, you’ll want to serve something in the taco-burrito-empanada family. If your guests love Chinese takeout, prepare your soy sauce bottle. This is your chance to be as extra as you want in the kitchen. Lean into it.
Here are a few of my favorite indulgent dishes:
4. If all else fails… make an undetectably vegan version of a classic.
I’ve been using the same apple pie recipe since my eighth-grade family and consumer science class. Forgive me for tooting my own horn, but people lose their damn minds over this pie. It’s utterly perfect, and you’d never, ever know it was vegan. Even I was surprised by how easy it was to veganize it, and that’s the point: just because something is vegan doesn’t mean it can’t be utterly amazing.
I have no shame in being that person who sneaks my potluck contribution onto the table without fanfare and waits until everyone is licking their forks to announce that my dish was vegan. Pushy evangelism does not get people to think twice about veganism. You know what does? Outrageously delicious and comfortingly familiar food. (So you might want to think twice before being that person who also sneaks a weird ingredient into their surprise vegan dish. Some audiences can appreciate a tofu mousse. Others, not so much.)
Only you can choose the perfect classic to veganize, so I don’t have any specific links for you (and, quite frankly, you can pry my precious apple pie recipe from my cold, dead hands). But there are countless blogs and cookbooks out there that can help you make your own showstopper. I believe in you.
Maggie Olson is a marketing professional living in northeast Ohio, who went from knowing nothing about money to being the kind of personal finance nerd who texts her friends about IPOs and Roth IRAs. She is a voracious reader, an amateur artisan bread hobbyist, and a hiker/biker/runner/kayaker. You can find her on twitter at @maggiebolson.
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