Let’s be honest: Your friends might not be picky eaters, but finding a restaurant that makes everyone happy is harder than waking up for that 6 a.m. bootcamp. At any given brunch (or women’s circle) you might have a vegan sitting on one side of you, someone’s who’s gone Paleo on the other, and your gluten-free BFF across the table.
So is hosting a dinner party where everyone can chow down impossible? Not according to Anna Thomas.
In her new cookbook Vegan, Vegetarian, Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table, the writer and chef details how to serve up crowd-pleasing dishes, regardless of diet. “Everybody should feel welcome at the table,” Thomas says. “No one should feel like they’re eating around the edges of the plate and no one should feel guilty. The idea is to have a hospitable table where everyone [is] comfortable and happy together.”
Her big secret: Cook a vegan dish as your base—with meat and cheeses prepared on the side, ready to be mixed in for those who want them. This way, no one is left out.
And that’s just the start: Read on for Thomas’s six tips (plus recipes!) for planning out a dinner party that everyone can enjoy.
1. Start with the food that everyone eats
This is Thomas’ whole idea, in a nutshell. She advises you have the base dish consist of food that everybody eats, and then build out from there. Don’t serve meat or fish as the main—you’ll immediately have to substitute or take things away, which makes things immensely more difficult (and the goal is to keep things easy, Gwyneth-style).
2. Grains can be a very hearty centerpiece
Grains work as an anchor and go with essentially everything. “It’s one of those things that lasts through the seasons,” says Thomas. “In the summer serve it with salad, and stewed or roasted vegetables in the winter.” Stick with your favorite ancient grains, or go for something gluten-free (like rice or quinoa).
3. A meal in a bowl is the ultimate choice for flexibility
A great way to plan a dinner is to structure it in a bowl (yep, we’ve seen this before). Thomas suggests tortilla soup with shredded chicken on the side, or her satisfying vegetable soup, which pairs perfectly with fish for your pescatarian guests—keep reading to get her recipe!
4. When in doubt, go for crowd-pleasers
Food favorites are often also highly customizable. Pizza? Offer a cauli rice-crust option and lots of veggies for those forgoing dairy. Planning something for #tacotuesday? Serve fresh salsas, spicy black beans, sliced avocado, and perhaps some carnitas or shredded chicken, and then stand back and let everyone build their own plate.
5. Mezze can be the whole meal
Sometimes smaller is better—and simpler. “The great foods of the Middle East make for a very easy, yet scrumptious, meal,” says Thomas. Added bonus: They’re mostly served at room temperature, so the dishes can be made ahead of time.
6. Risotto is the LBD of dinner parties—it can be fancied up with anything
Thomas compares the creamy rice dish to Victoria Beckham’s favorite piece of attire—and it’s true. You can add any ingredient(s) to a simple risotto to make it an elegant and wholesome meal. She suggests a fresh lemon version with sauteed fava beans for the spring, with garlic shrimp passed along as a possible side for those who want it (keep reading for that recipe, too).
Ready to get cooking? Here are three super-flexible recipes that will have even your pickiest friend drooling.
1. Lemon Risotto with Sautéed Fava Beans
Serves 6 to 8 as a center-of-the-plate dish
“Although the ingredients are simple, I think of this as a luxury dish,” says Thomas. “Fresh fava beans are a seasonal delicacy, and shelling this many rates as an act of culinary devotion. The risotto is aromatic with lemon zest and richly satisfying with the bright green new favas—a bowlful of spring.”
5 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for garnish
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cups peeled fresh green fava beans, from 1 lb. shelled beans
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
3/4 cup finely chopped shallots
8–9 cups light vegetable broth, diluted if salty
2 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1/4 cup dry white wine
1 1/2 Tbsp finely grated lemon zest
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for the table
1. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium sauté pan, add the garlic, and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the peeled fava beans and sauté them over medium-high heat, stirring almost constantly, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until they color lightly. Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice, sprinkle the beans with a big pinch of sea salt, give them one more stir, and remove them from the heat. Set them aside as you prepare the rice.
2. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large sauté pan and stir the shallots in it over medium heat, with a dash of salt, until they are soft, 6 or 7 minutes. Bring the vegetable broth to a simmer, cover it, and keep it hot on the lowest flame. Be sure that your vegetable broth is not too strong or salty.
3. Add the rice to the shallots and stir over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the wine and stir as it evaporates. Add 1 cup of the hot vegetable broth, lower the heat to a simmer, and stir as the broth is absorbed into the rice.
4. Continue adding broth, about a cup at a time, stirring almost constantly. As each cup of broth is nearly absorbed, add the next cup and stir again, and so on until the rice is tender but firm and a creamy sauce has formed around it, 20 to 25 minutes.
5. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice and the lemon zest, as well as two-thirds of the sautéed fava beans, reserving the rest for a garnish. Stir in the Parmigiano, and then, just before serving, add a final, generous ladleful of broth.
6. Immediately spoon the risotto into shallow bowls and scatter a few reserved fava beans on top of each serving. Pass the olive oil carafe and the additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table.
2. Easy Fish Soup (from Easy Vegetable Soup)
Serves 8 to 10 as a meal
“This is the easiest fish soup I know,” says Thomas. “It begins as an easy vegetable soup; five minutes before serving, you add the fish. The result is a fresh and lively flavor.” She notes that since it is not based on a fish stock, it’s an ideal dish for flexible eating.
You can move some of the vegetable soup into another pot for the vegans and vegetarians at the table, and serve that with a toasted cheese crouton or a big spoonful of cooked cannellini stirred into the vegetables. Straight up works, too! Thomas advises that you pick a fish that looks best at the market that day. Too many freshly caught options? The dish tastes just as good with several kinds of seafood mixed in.
3–4 stalks celery (8 oz.), sliced
1 lb. small potatoes, cut in wedges or diced
4–5 medium carrots (12 oz.), sliced
3 cups peeled tomatoes, cut up (canned are okay)
2 fennel bulbs (12 oz.), quartered and sliced
1 large red bell pepper (5 oz.), quartered and thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dried tarragon or 1 Tbsp fresh tarragon
2–3 tsp chopped or fresh thyme
6 cups light vegetable broth
1 tsp sea salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup (1 1/2 oz.) fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, quartered and sliced
1 large leek (5 oz.), white part only, sliced
6–7 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup dry white wine, plus more to taste
3 lbs. assorted fish and shellfish
Optional: crushed red chiles, croutons, extra-virgin olive oil as garnish
1. Combine the first 6 vegetables in a large pot with 5 cups water, and add the bay leaves, tarragon, thyme, vegetable broth, salt, and pepper to taste. Simmer for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender, and add the fresh parsley.
2. Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large nonstick pan and sauté the onions in it over medium heat for 10 minutes, until they are limp and beginning to color. Add the leeks and continue sautéing over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often, until everything is soft and golden.
3. Push the onions and leeks to the edges of the pan, add the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the middle, and when it is hot add the garlic and sizzle it for about a minute.
4. Add this mixture to the soup, deglazing the pan with a bit of the broth. Add the white wine, bring the soup back to a simmer for 10 minutes, taste, and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed, and crushed red chiles if you like.
5. Trim your fish if it needs trimming, and cut fillets into cubes or slices. Wash shellfish thoroughly. Do not peel shrimp.
6. No more than 5 minutes before you want to serve the soup, bring it back to a simmer, remove, and discard the bay leaves, and add the fish—denser fish first, more delicate fish last. Simmer only until the fish is opaque and flaking and the shrimp are pink, 3 to 5 minutes.
7. Serve the soup at once, in large bowls, and drizzle olive oil on top of each serving. Add croutons if you like, or have plenty of fresh sourdough bread or garlic toast for dipping.
3. Carrot and Walnut Cake
Makes 2 small cakes or 1 layer cake, enough for 12 servings
“I’ve tried many carrot cakes and find most of them too heavy and oily,” says Thomas. “This one delivers all the flavor and feels just right.” Your guests will likely agree. (Also likely? Them asking for a second slice.)
2 1/3 cups (9 1/2 oz.) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 tsp sea salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1 cup fresh orange juice
1 1/2 tsp grated orange zest
1/2 cup canola oil
3/4 cup (5 1/2 oz.) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (3 oz.) dark brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 cup (4 1/2 oz.) finely chopped walnuts
1/4 cup (1 1/2 oz.) candied ginger, finely chopped
2 cups (8 oz.) grated carrots
1/2 cup (2 1/2 oz.) raisins
1. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. In another bowl, whisk together the orange juice, zest, canola oil, sugars, and vanilla extract.
2. Add the dry ingredients to the wet mixture in 2 or 3 batches, beating with an electric mixer until just combined. Stir in the finely chopped walnuts, ginger, grated carrots, and raisins.
3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil 2 round cake pans and line the bottoms with oiled parchment. Spoon the batter evenly into the pans and bake the cakes for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes before removing them from the pans.
4. Combine the powdered sugar in a bowl with the vodka, 3 teaspoons orange juice, and the almond extract. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. If the mixture is more a paste than a sauce, add more orange juice. You should have a smooth glaze that pours slowly from a spoon. This amount is sufficient to glaze 1 cake generously or to make light swirls over 2 cakes. Drizzle the glaze over the cakes, letting it drip down the sides. Allow the glaze to dry before covering the cakes.
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.