Planning a vegan dinner party? Charlotte Willis shares her tips for making it a stress-free experience…
So here I stand in what can only loosely be described as my kitchen. I can’t see the wood for the pigeons, or rather, the work surface for the ingredients that I have strewn around the place in an utter chaotic state of culinary ambition-gone-wrong. I’ve seemingly bitten off far more than I can chew (and that vegan nut-roast I have conjured up is definitely un-chewable for even the most chiselled of incisors). A tornado of almond flour flies from my Kenwood Chef, followed by an eruption of gravy slowly solidifying all over my kitchen cooker, whilst the equivalent of the earth’s core (aka my oven) slowly desiccates my baked peanut soufflés. What on earth was I thinking?
It all began under such hopeful pretence. Host a vegan dinner party, she thought. Veg-ucate my fellow friends, she said. Wow them with just how truly delicious vegan cuisine can be, she promised. Turns out I was less Deliciously Ella, more Tragically Charlotte.
Am I the only one who’s ever been that overly-ambitious friend or family member? Promising to host the perfect vegan experience that will blow everyone away, convert the masses, quash stereotypes and amaze everyone at my time-keeping skills – juggling two jobs, writing, fitness, studying and all while keeping an immaculate house. There barely ever seems time to breathe, let alone go to the trouble of milking your own almonds, crisping your own kale and slow-marinating tofu for hours on end.
The truth is, that behind those perfectly picturesque Instagrams of luxe table-spreads, there ensues an air of intimidation. How do I live up to their expectations? Playing host to a handful of your nearest and dearest is a little intimidating, made even harder when they don’t happen to follow the same dietary and lifestyle choices that you do. The way I see it, you don’t have to have a qualification from Leiths’, an impressive foodie-styling blog or even any spare time to become the perfect vegan dinner-party host. Having successfully converted my closest family members to the vegan diet over a few years, and been given the role of chief Christmas-Easter-any-family-gathering menu-coordinator, I’ve learnt a few lessons in pleasing crowds (since the great kitchen meltdown of 2015, that is).
So in classic cookery-show style, here’s something I made earlier.
Perfect planning prevents poor pavlovas
You’ve done it. You’ve set a date. Marked it on your calendar for next week, and told all your friends. Now where was that book you so desperately wanted to finish?
Procrastinating your planning stage is the first step towards utter dinner party disaster. Leave it to the last minute, and that smoked paprika you wanted for your sweet potato mash will be sold out in every Tesco Metro in a 25 mile vicinity. Chances are, you’ll be diving head-first towards a culinary whirlpool of unnecessary stress, which could have been prevented. I’ve been there too! Last minute shopping for a tofurkey roast on December 23rd was never going to present any result other than panic-stricken disappointment. So save yourself unwanted stress and angst. Make sure you take some time to really think about what you would like to (and are actually able to) make. This should be done at least a week before your event is planned, allowing time for ingredient sourcing and preparation of courses.
Planning doesn’t have to involve an endless list of lists. It could be something as enjoyable and relaxing as sitting down with a great vegan magazine (cough, cough), flicking through the beautifully presented recipe pages for inspiration. Short on time? A quick scroll through Pinterest on your commute or a lunch break perusing a favourite blog enables you to find ideas on the go.
Note down, screenshot or save anything that appeals to you and catches your eye, then simply form your menu using these ideas! I’ve spent many an afternoon thumbing through back-issues of magazines to formulate the ultimate dinner party of days gone by. Not only is it productive for your event, you’ll also help stimulate your creative side (and serious cravings, most likely) and might even find new inspiration for regular dishes too.
Mastering your menu
I’m often asked, what is the perfect number of courses for a dinner party? And how do I know what to make for each course? Well, much like the amount of peanut butter I consume on a daily basis, it really is dependent upon how gluttonous and adventurous you are feeling and how you think your guests will respond (more on that later).
If your starter is too heavy, the main event will be a challenge, and dessert will be a struggle. Put simply, follow the basic principles below for achieving a perfect balance during your meal.
The starter should be an introduction to your main course, therefore try to choose something cleansing for the palette that’s easy on the stomach. Try a small bowl of citrus salad with crumbled cheeze, a series of mixed dips with various raw crackers and crudités, mushroom-filled miso lettuce cups, a light vegetable soup or broth, vegan petit fours and mini bites where guests help themselves to however much they feel is right. Remember not to include anything too protein-rich or fatty. These take longer to digest and will signal to the stomach and brain that you are getting too full too soon! Try to keep the flavours fresh and light too, anything too strong or salty will overwhelm the tastebuds and may result in the main course being overpowered by the starter’s lasting impression!
The main event
The main course is what all of your diners have been waiting for and, for a seasoned chef, this is your time to make an impression and showcase your skills! But for a dinner-party newbie or someone who is short on time, there is no need to feel intimidated or anxious to amaze. Some of the most delicious dishes can be rustled up within an hour, and require minimal preparation. No idea what to make? Crowd-pleasing make-ahead dishes include bean curries served with chutneys and breads or slow-cooked veggie tagines with couscous and salad.
Traditional fare would see you rustle up a vegan roast dinner with all the trimmings, but why not look further afield and try out a themed night for your next kitchen party? Lay on a Mexican-style taco and burrito night, equipped with piñata and cocktails, or a sushi-making party for your guests to try their hands at veggie nori rolls. Even laying on a giant paella where guests help themselves can spark up great conversation and set you apart from the regular dining clubs.
Ah dessert. Let’s skip the other courses and get straight to dessert shall we? After all, however full-to-bursting you may be, there is usually always room for a little bit (or probably way more than a little bit) of hot chocolate brownie cake, avocado mousse, raw cheesecake and fruit meringue pavlova (or all of the above, thanks). Dessert is the greatest course in the time-conscious’ dinner party. Why? Well, most desserts can be craftily made ahead of time and left in the fridge or freezer, ready to be unwrapped at the moment of indulgence.
Despite an often complex appearance, frozen cheezecakes can be whipped up in a food processor in a matter of minutes using cashews, plant mylk, lemon juice, flavouring, such as mint or cocoa, and a sweetener layered on top of a date, nut and raisin blitzed base. These are one of the most satisfying, but yet ridiculously simple, desserts – sure to be a crowd-pleaser.
You also can’t go wrong with a good old cheeze board, accompanied by a selection of breads, fruit, crackers and red wine. This can be arranged last minute, using a selection of items from your local supermarket or health food shop – Sainsbury’s does a great array of vegan cheeses! Why not turn dessert into a taste-test? Get your guests involved in scrutinising the faux Stilton.
If time is not an issue, channel your inner Mary Berry, go all out by making your dessert into a show-stopping masterpiece! Aquafaba meringues, agar-agar mousse cakes and spun caramel will see your guests leave your house in rapturous awe. Many fabulous recipes can be found online too.
Catering for your guests
This is all well and good should your guest list consist of exclusively vegan members. But if meat-eaters, judging relatives or sceptical friends are to share your dining table, you might feel an increased amount of pressure to deliver a phenomenally earth-shattering, mouth-wateringly plant-based party fit for the cover of this magazine. My best advice is not to dwell on the fact that you’ll be catering for a diverse range of dietary tastes, and instead, try to focus on the quality of the evening.
Draw attention away from the plant-based elephant in the room by organizing ice-breaking games across the dining room, such as table charades or quick fire quizzes. This will help get people talking and shake off any pre-party anxiety by focusing the conversation in other areas than your lifestyle choice.
Stick to your guns. If you know you’ll be faced with a handful of tricky guests, or you’re worried about what others may think of your menu, just remember this – you are the host! Be true to your morals and remain strong-willed, don’t be tempted to buy-in ingredients that you’d not ordinarily want lurking in your cupboards. Allow your guests to get an insight into your eating habits and let your delicious food do the talking.
Amuse their bouche
Introduce an aperitif, or pre-dinner snack for your guests to try. Something as simple as chocolate dipped fruit and nuts, home-baked crackers with dips, bite-sized avocado on rye bread toasts, or mini vegan pancakes with compote and yoghurt make a lovely welcome canapé, setting the tone for a refined evening.
Set the scene appropriately. Lay your dinner table to suit your theme, digging out your finest china sets or going avant-garde with slate, stoneware and coconut bowls. Get creative with your plating, or simply allow your guests to help themselves from larger platters to share.
When it comes to hosting the perfect vegan dinner party, the best evenings emanate from the host. So relax and concentrate on having an enjoyable night, no matter what your cooking skills are like. Sharing memories and joking amongst close ones helps conversation flow when you remove the stress and pressure from yourself. So what if your hummus is split or a pie is the wrong shade of golden brown.
Embrace the experience. At the end of the day, coming together as a group around a table to share a meal is an honest and simple pleasure in our maddeningly busy lives – that’s all that matters. Just remember the lid on the blender next time you make soup, and set a timer on the oven for goodness sake (note to self).