Ask Reece: Hosting a dinner party & Keeping herbs fresh
I am planning to host a dinner party, but even with a short list of friends, I will be accommodating one vegetarian, one vegan, at least one person who has celiac disease (plus some who are wheat/gluten-sensitive), and various allergies. How can I even begin to prepare a menu? I’d like to make an elegant but simple meal without a million different options and without spending an inordinate amount of time or money, or having to learn a lot of new cooking methods.
Up to Here With Different Diets
This is not an uncommon issue. Many people have health, ethical, and medical reasons for restricting the foods they eat. When you add friends who may switch from Paleo to Sirtfood one week to the next, it can get complicated.
According to my guru, the sassy and long-suffering etiquette expert Miss Manners, it’s the responsibility of the host to inquire about dietary restrictions and provide something for everyone, but it is not impolite to serve dishes that some guests can’t eat.
I have a few guidelines that work for me:
- Inquire about food restrictions and keep a list. For larger groups, simply offer some gluten-free and vegan dishes. Consider leaving common serious allergens — peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and seafood — off the menu.
- Choose how much or how little you are willing and able to provide accommodation. Then communicate with guests so they know what to expect. That plant-based dish you were so excited to find among your family recipes may be less enjoyable to the vegan friend who ate in advance. Alternatively, learning that a severe allergen is on the menu may alert an acquaintance that they won’t safely be able to partake in dessert due to potential cross-contamination.
- Mentally group overlapping food restrictions. Vegan food works for vegetarians and people with milk/lactose intolerances, gluten-free foods are safe for those with wheat allergies, etc. This means fewer diet options to keep track of.
- Make food you know. If you cook in a certain style, make a number of dishes that fit that style (i.e., one with meat, one gluten-free, two vegetarian, etc.) rather than try to make different versions of the same dish tailored to each individual diet. This will ensure reliably delicious food, and provide variety to many guests.
Remember that entertaining is not the ideal time to experiment. Almost all cuisines and cooking styles include some dishes that work for all diets, or can easily be modified to do so. Take a look at what you currently like to make, and you might be surprised. Even meat-heavy cuisines often have some hearty plant-based side dishes that can serve as mains. Very few styles of cooking rely so heavily on a single ingredient that it’s hard to find dishes without gluten or the allergens listed above. Seasonal fruit-based desserts are simple, satisfying, and fit into most diets. Examples include winter pears or apples in mulled juice or wine, or summer berries with cream (on the side).
Keep detailed recipe notes or ingredient lists of everything you make or buy so you can answer guests’ questions. For larger groups labelling dishes can assist guests.
Additionally, certain types of spread provide some flexibility in what guests choose to eat.
- Tapas spread: A spread of many simple tapas, or canapés, with other small dishes in whatever style you choose.
- DIY-style meals: Many styles of foods let guests choose which ingredients they want to use. Examples include shish kabob, barbecue, hot pots, rice bowls (a dressing, base of rice or noodles, and an assortment of veggies and proteins to add on top), gourmet grilled cheese and grilled veggies (borrow a couple extra sandwich presses), DIY salad rolls, and many more. Avoid cross-contamination by providing separate serving tools for different diets.
Relax, enjoy yourself, and remember that dinner parties are really about the company (and sometimes the wine).
Martin J, Martin N, and Martin J. (2017, January 29). No Host Can Hope to Please Guests With Multiple Food Restrictions. Retrieved from http://www.uexpress.com/miss-manners/2017/1/29/2/no-host-can-hope-to-please
What’s the best way to keep my herbs fresh?
Great question. Fresh herbs can really help provide some flavour variety in simple meals, and having a few on hand is key. As a bonus, herbs such as sage, rosemary, and thyme may play a role in helping to prevent a variety of chronic illnesses, even when eaten in small quantities.
If you don’t have easy access to an herb garden, keeping store-bought herbs as fresh as possible in the fridge is the next best thing. I’ve found that herbs last longest if I cut off the bottoms of the stems, stick them in a glass of cold water (like a bouquet of flowers), and loosely cover with a plastic bag before refrigerating.
Hope that helps,
Opara EI and Chohan M. Culinary Herbs and Spices: Their Bioactive Properties, the Contribution of Polyphenols and the Challenges in Deducing Their True Health Benefits. International Journal Of Molecular Sciences. 2014;15(10):19183–19201.
Ask Reece is the Chronicle’s new advice column by Karma working member Reece Steinberg, a health sciences librarian and food enthusiast. Reece provides advice with input from a variety of sources including anything from traditional etiquette columns to peer-reviewed scientific articles. He answers Karma member questions about dietary lifestyles, food science and fermentation, eating etiquette, and anything else food-related. Please submit your questions to questions to Reece by email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Ask Reece.”