Can we all sit down to dinner together?

Anna ThomasAnna Thomas wrote her first cookbook, The Vegetarian Epicure, while she was a film student at UCLA, and followed it a few years later with The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two. When she is not cooking, she writes screenplays and produces films. Her screen credits include My Family, Mi Familia and El Norte, both of which were nominated for an Academy Award. She lives in Los Angeles and Ojai, California. Anna has just released another cookbook, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore, which explores the difficulties you can encounter when preparing a sit-down dinner for people with different dietary concerns. (Enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of the book, and visit the World Calendar of Cookbook Events for details on Anna’s book tour.) We asked Anna to elaborate on the premise behind her new cookbook:

Years ago, I became an upstart in the food scene by writing The Vegetarian Epicure while I was still a film student at UCLA.  Since then I’ve cooked a lot, entertained often, and written several more books.  (Good grief – now I’m the O.G.)  And yes, I believe that what I put on the table is important.  But there is one thing more important: 

Who is at the table?

Gathering my friends around the table has always been one of the joys of my life — but I don’t invite people over because they eat the same way I do, and I’m willing to bet you don’t either.  We invite folks because we love them, or want to know them better, or they tell the best jokes!  Or maybe simply because we’re related.  

So, can we all sit down and have dinner together?

The way we eat has been changing, and I’ve heard the laments from people who are afraid to entertain because this one will only eat that, and the other one won’t eat this…   We need to find a way with food, I thought, that allows us to relax and be flexible.  To just have a good time. 

But here’s the thing — our traditional food culture has a default setting:  meat in the middle, grains and vegetables on the side.  Those familiar meals could be adapted, of course, but we’d immediately be taking something away, substituting -compromising. Of course, we could prepare two separate meals, but what a hassle!  And let’s face it, then there would be an A meal and a B meal, and who wants to be eating the B meal? 

We’re doing this backwards, I thought.  Why not start with the food everyone eats?

Everyone eats the watermelon at the picnic.  It’s not the vegan watermelon, it’s just the watermelon.  Everyone eats the minestrone, the salad, the focaccia.  Everyone eats my roasted potato wedges withmojo verde. And they line up for the guacamole and fresh salsa I serve with tequila cocktails.

It seemed so simple.  Start with the foods everyone eats, create a dish or a meal that works, then add and elaborate.  Expand the meal with cheese, fish, or meat… make it flexible.  Make one meal, but one that can be enjoyed in variations.  It became my holy grail:  to design meals at which we could sit down together, toast each other, and eat happily in my peaceable kingdom.  From that came my new book, Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore.

I made a savory chile verde with fat white beans, and added chicken to half of it.  I made Lebanese-style stuffed peppers filled with aromatic rice and lentils, but added spiced lamb to half the stuffing.  I made meals built around hearty pilafs of farro and black rice, surrounded by roasted vegetables – and slices of pork for the omnivores. My easy fish soup became a dinner party favorite.  It begins as a robust vegetable soup and the fish and shellfish are added at the last minute, so it can easily be served in two versions.

One spring weekend, after my weekly visit to the Ojai farmers’ market, I made a lemon-perfumed risotto with sautéed fresh fava beans.  I offered large shavings of Parmigiano, and passed a platter of sautéed shrimp for those who wanted it.  With a salad of the first tender lettuces, and a bowl of strawberries for dessert, it was a perfect springtime meal.  Is it a dinner party?  Start with Carrot Top Pesto, served with roasted young carrots, crostini, and tangy goat cheese.  For dessert, make a compote of strawberries and tangerines in agave nectar.

And invite everyone you like, call them to the table without fear.  

We long for that social table, it is a place of sharing, of stories and jokes, old friendships and new ones, a place where we can become our best selves.  Let’s not give it up just because we don’t all eat the same way!

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